Leonard Shlain:

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(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

The thesis of this book by the USA surgeon Leonard Shlain is that humankind used to be ruled by women and they lost their power when the alphabet was invented. It is a far-fetched thesis and most of his arguments are weak. Nonetheless, the book makes for interesting reading because it scours all the main civiliations of ancient times for clues to the mystery of the advent of patriarchy.

The fundamental postulates of Shlain's theory are that 1. literacy, especially alphabet literacy, is managed by the left hemisphere of the brain at the expense of the right hemisphere.; and that 2. the left hemisphere is "masculine" whereas the right hemisphere is "feminine". Thus the invention of the alphabet was a curse for women and a godsend for men. However, few neurologists agree with either postulate.

Shlain characterized right-hemisphere (in his opinion, women's) thinking as "holistic", and left-hemisphere (men's) thinking as "reductionist". Writing, and more importantly alphabet writing, tilted the balance towards left-hemisphere thinking, therefore altering the balance of power between the sexes. Throughout the book he keeps emphasizing that women think through images whereas men think through words.

If these premises are debatable, what is less debatable is that early civilizations in different parts of the world seemed to worship a lot more female deities and respect them a lot more than later civilizations did.

The striking asymmetry of the human brain is also not an opinion. No other animal exhibits such a wild asymmetry of the two hemispheres. Shlain, though, simplifies a bit the picture by claiming that the right one is mostly non-verbal (better at recognition tasks) and the left one is mostly verbal, better at reasoning tasks. (Their differences are much bigger). There are differences between female and male brains, but it requires a big leap of faith to believe what Shlain claims: that such small differences make women driven mostly by the right brain, while men are driven mostly by the left brain. Shlain believes that this neurological difference was created by evolution in order to improve the hunter/killer on one side (the left brain) and the gatherer/nurturer on the other side (the right brain), basically two different roles that needed two different kinds of brain.

Shlain assumes that neolithic societies were created and run by women, although the historical record does not show either way.

When writing began to replace speech as the main form of communication, left-hemisphere dominance increased, and that conferred males an advantage, since they had the better left hemispheres. Shlain convincingly explains how the act of writing/reading differs from the act of speaking/listening. He believes that this difference implied a much more intense use of the left hemisphere.

The next step is to claim that left-hemisphere thinking enables abstract thinking. That is another debatable assumption, since abstraction seems to be more related to a holistic approach than to a reductionist approach. Anyway, Shlain believes that grammar and the alphabet are abstract in nature and therefore, again, better suited for the brain with a stronger left hemisphere, i.e. the male brain.

Another wild assumption (and probably irrelevant for the thesis of the book) is that the alphabet was invented by the Jews. Since most scholars believe that it was invented by the Phoenicians, Shlain has to move back the date of the exodus by a few centuries (to the same age of Atlantis, which presumably corresponds to the volcanic explosion of Thera in the 17th century BC). Once he has casually done that, he can claim that the Jews invented monotheism (the abstract god and only god) because they had invented the alphabet and therefore their brains were thinking more abstract than the brains of other peoples. This is a totally unnecessary assumption and wildly difficult to claim, as the Bible was probably written much much later (not earlier) than he thinks. It is far from being one of the oldest literary documents of the West.

His overviews of Indian and Chinese civilizations are superficial at best. He notes that India was the last of the major civilizations to adopt the alphabet (i guess he doesn't consider the Indus Valley civilization as "India", while he considers the Sumerians as "West", otherwise the conclusion would be the opposite, with Europe being dead last), and that Hindu religion still has a lot of female deities. He argues that Buddhism lost to Hinduism because Buddhists refused to write their teachings while the Hindus did. He thinks that China's cruel subjugation of women (e.g., foot binding) began when the printing press became ubiquitous.

Dulcis in fundo, he describes both Socrates and Confucius as "religious leaders", something that would have certainly amused Socrates and outraged Confucius. Anyway, Socrates, Confucius and the other four "religious" leaders whom Shlain singles out (Zoroaster, Buddha, Lao-tzu, and, of course, a Jewish prophet of the same age, Isaiah) at the expense of others (Jain, Hindu, Mithraic, Christian, etc etc) lived in what new-age pundits like to call "the axian age". Shlain believes that it was the consequence of the spreading of literacy, that pushed these men to a higher level of consciousness (implying that women remained to a lower one). Misogyny went hand in hand with these process of increasing awareness.

Shlain's overview of history is biased. He claims that the Hellenistic period witnessed a decline in the arts and philosophy and a simultaneous rise in the status of women (neither fact is self-evident).

He claims that Christianity promoted gender equality before its message was written down (i.e., when Jesus and his apostles were preaching verbally) and rapidly became chauvinist as the gospels were written and then countless treaties were manufactured over the centuries (but he neglects to mention that Jesus picked 12 male apostles and no female apostle, and that he put Peter, a male, in charge of the Church). He even implies that Jesus and his apostles did not write anything on purpose (the reason is that neither Jesus nor the apostles nor most of the people of Palestine knew how to read and write). In passing, he makes a few mistakes that show a superficial knowledge of the topic, as when he speculates on why Christianity adopted the unusual symbol of the fish (obviously, he does not know that the initials of the words "Jesus Christ Son Of God and Saviour" in Greek sound like "ichthys" or "fish", a code word for early Christians who would have been otherwised persecuted for openly displaying their Christianity, the same way that 19th century Italian independence fighters disguised themselves under the name of opera composer Verdi that stood for "Viva Emanuele Re d'Italia"). There is no question, though, that Christianity became obsessed with (against) women in the centuries following Jesus, and mainly thanks to the many treaties written by the likes of Origen and Augustine. Shlain claims that this was due to an increased left-hemisphere thinking as opposed to Jesus' original balanced thinking. His counter-proof is that the cult of the Virgin Mary emerged in illiterate Europe. This is another wild assumption, as the cult of the Virgin Mary was clearly promoted by the Popes since the Middle Ages. All the sculptures and paintings that he has certainly seen in Europe were commissioned by the Church. For no other figure in Christianity has the Church spent so much money. Not for Peter, not for Paul, not for Jesus' father (who is largely neglected in Christianity) and not even for Jesus himself.

Shlain blames Islam's bias against women on the people who wrote the Quran, noting that pre-Islamic Arabia worshipped female deities (such as the three daughters of Allah, which he confuses as a wife and two daughters). Again, Shlain makes the bold assumption that Mohammed, who never wrote, was not biased against women, and that the bias was introduced by the literate people who wrote down the Quran. (In reality, we know that Mohammed married several wives and contemporary historians describe how he raped the women of the defeated tribes, as was customary at the time). Later he seems to imply that Muslims did not cultivate witch hunts because they did not adopt the printing press, as if the condition of women in the Islamic world was any better than the condition of Western women during the witch hunt (the witch hunt occurred in the West because Western women lived much more public lives than Muslim women did: there was no reason to burn a woman at the stakes in the Islamic world).

Focusing on the corruption of the Popes, Shlain depicts the Renaissance as a time of particular decadence (in his view due to the spreading of the printing press, i.e. to increased left-hemisphere thinking) but omits to mention that the Roman Empire was equally decadent (and much more violent, with emperors routinely assassinated) at a time when literacy was lower, not higher (and, in fact, by his own admission, the Romans had lost quite a bit of the Greek passion for writing). He associates the madness of Renaissance politics with the rise of science (again, left-hemisphere thinking) but, again, neglects to mention that the madness of the Roman empire was associated with stagnation in the sciences.

In other words, he handpicks what matters and what does not matter.

Of all the major developed countries of the time, only one opposed the printing press (until the 19th century): the Ottoman Empire. It is odd that Shlain leaves it out. If Shlain's theory were right, the Ottoman Empire should have been a model of gender equality. Guess what: it was pretty much the worst place for a woman.

He has a good point, though, that the rise of rationality following Newton, Darwin and the industrial revolution led to the Victorian Age and its repression of women, although one could argue that men were repressed too, compared with the licentiousness of previous centuries. His argument should be more properly framed as: progress in the sciences and in technology was paralleled by a progress in criminalizing sexuality (of both genders). And this is indeed an interesting topic. Whether society became more chauvinist or less, is, instead, debatable. After all the Victorian Age is named so because the most powerful ruler in the world was Queen Victoria, a woman, who followed distinguished rulers such as Katerina II, empress of Russia (1729-1796) and Gosakuramachi, empress of Japan (1762-70). In fact, at the end of the 19th century the two largest empires in the world, Britain and China, were both ruled by women (dowager empress Tsu Hsi ruled for 47 years, queen Victoria ruled for 64 years). He mentions none of them. He also omits the fact that in 1789 women were the first to march on Versailles, thus starting the French revolution. He does mention the boom in female literature, mainly in Anglosaxon countries (the very lands of super-rational thought), but then distorts the chronology a bit to claim that it happened because of the decline of left-hemisphere thinking, when, in fact, that was its zenith.

A more likely explanation for the increasing discrimination against women during the 19th century is the industrial revolution itself, that emphasized the difference in strength between the sexes, thus relegating women to second-rate jobs. Only recently, with the digital revolution, has that gap been removed. That gap had little to do with the brain's hemispheres and a lot to do with the muscles of the arms and the legs.

Shlain continues by explaining the birth of the feminist movement as a consequence of the technological inventions that slowly but steadily deprived the written word of its power: photography, cinema, television. Thinking via images instead of words is, in his opinion, the job of the right hemisphere, i.e. women have an advantage. There is little to justify his claim in history. Women became a large audience for tv because they were at home. Men were (and still are) the main audience for comics.
Over and over again, the problem is that Shlain was not accurate in his research. At one point, he claims that "in the majority of European languages... weapons... and implements that cut, saw, etc are always masculine". The "always" is a killer. To start with, the saw is feminine in at least Italian, French and Spanish. So are scissors. And, as for weapons, the pistol, the grenade, the spear, the sword, and, last but not least, the bomb are usually female. He claims that "gates" are usually female: it depends which word you use to translate it, but usually it's "cancello" (male) in Italian, "portail" (male) in French and "tor" (neutral) in German. Why make such statements without even asking a native speaker to doublecheck?

He writes that "the first modern call for female equality" was Mary Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" (1792). How about Olympia de Gouges' "D‚claration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne" (1791)?

He claims that "communism severely oppressed women" in the Soviet Union, when in fact it was the first major country in which they were allowed to work in countless jobs that had been previously reserved for men. (In many ways, the Soviet Union was the modern Sparta).

His overview of the Far East is even more confused and confusing, as he somehow blames ideograms for China's backwardness (but what about Japan?) and insults the civilizations of Southeast Asia, probably unaware that one of the wonders of the world, Angkor, is in Cambodia (in my humble opinion, unmatched by anything done in the West), and another one is in Indonesia (Borobudur), and that literary masterpieces such as "Hikayat Hang Tuah" (16##), Nguyen Du/Zu's "Tale of Kieu" (18##) and Ho Xuan Huong's "poems" (18##) predate their colonization by Western powers. He describes the region of Indochina as "generally peaceful" before the arrival of the Europeans and of their literacy, showing a total ignorance of local history, that was often as bloody as the history of Europe. He seems to confuse recorded history with history. The massacres of literate peoples are simply better recorded than the massacres of illiterate peoples. In some places the new literacy brought by the Europeans had the opposite effect: it spawned the non-violent movement of Gandhi.

Shlain's overview of women's rise and fall is indeed odd. He never mentions the Barbarians and, in general, all the peoples who remained illiterate during the thusands of years of Western and Chinese literacy. When he describes the rise of violence in the West (attributing it to the rise in literacy), he neglects to mention that the world blamed the Barbarians (the peoples who never learned how to read and write) for the worst excesses. To this day, "barbarian" means a man of unspeakable ferociousness. The Barbarians came, looted, slaughtered and raped. So did the Mongols in the East. Their women were nothing more than animals that belonged to the men. While we know the names of many powerful and creative women of the Renaissance (the age of the printing press, when Shlain thinks that women's rights hit a nadir), we don't know the name of any powerful or creative woman of the Barbarians, whether Huns, Vandals, Visigoths, Mongols, Seljuks or Ottomans.

Shlain never comments on what should be his starting point. If women ruled before the invention of the alphabet, they must have been the ones inventing the alphabet and the most numerous users of the alphabet at the beginning. The reason he avoids the point is probably that the historical record shows otherwise. Men were already in power when the alphabet was invented, in every single civilization that he analyzes. The first written documents in Egypt, Mesopotamia and China describe a "male" civilization. The shift from male to female must have happened centuries before the invention of writing.

If Shlain's thesis were correct, there should be a simple way to prove it: look at the primitive societies of Africa and South America where the written word still remains a rarity, and you should find that women enjoy freedom and power. The truth is that women are far better off (and have been for centuries) in literate Western countries.

Whether he meant it or not, Shlain reiterates old stereotypes about women: that they act by instinct instead of thinking through, that they are equipped with stronger intuition, that they are not good at logic, even that they are not good at dealing with money, etc. He made amend in his next best-seller, SEX, TIME, AND POWER (2003).

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