A couple weeks ago, I was chided by a couple of readers for only attacking rightwing lunacy and leaving leftwing lunacy alone. Let me rectify that for the moment with a look at this amusing bit of balderdash from Leonard Shlain, a professor of surgery from UCSF. It’s an excerpt from his book The Alphabet versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. As a general rule, I think it’s safe to say that if you come across a book title that invokes the Goddess, there’s some major league flatulence on the way. This is no exception. His book begins:
Of all the sacred cows allowed to roam unimpeded in our culture, few are as revered as literacy. Its benefits have been so incontestable that in the five millennia since the advent of the written word numerous poets and writers have extolled its virtues. Few paused to consider its costs. Sophocles once warned, “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” The invention of writing was vast; this book will investigate the curse.
There exists ample evidence that any society acquiring the written word experiences explosive changes. For the most part, these changes can be characterized as progress. But one pernicious effect of literacy has gone largely unnoticed: writing subliminally fosters a patriarchal outlook. Writing of any kind, but especially its alphabetic form, diminishes feminine values and with them, women’s power in the culture. The reasons for this shift will be elaborated in the coming pages. For now, I propose that a holistic, simultaneous, synthetic, and concrete view of the world are the essential characteristics of a feminine outlook, linear, sequential, reductionist, and abstract thinking defines the masculine.
And yet another irony meter bites the dust. I wish they would make these things more durable, but perhaps it’s not possible to build one that could withstand the spectacle of seeing someone write a book about the horrors of writing books. For an encore, he sings a song about the evils of music and paints a picture to demonstrate the dangers of art.
Anthropological studies of non-literate agricultural societies show that, for the majority, relations between men and women have been more egalitarian than in more developed societies. Researchers have never proven beyond dispute that there were ever societies in which women had power and influence greater than or even equal to that of men. Yet, a diverse variety of preliterate agrarian cultures — the Iroquois and the Hopi in North America, the inhabitants of Polynesia, the African !Kung, and numerous others around the world — had and continue to have considerable harmony between the sexes.
This is another reliable clue that we are dealing with some serious hoohah – the venerable, and mostly imagined, “paradise lost” myth. In yet another irony, the leftists of academic feminism have no difficulty invoking these primitive societies as models of peace and egalitarian holism while deriding the Christian Garden of Eden story as mythological nonsense invented to blame everything on women. This can safely be assigned to the dustbin of nonsense, on the shelf next to the notion that the Egyptians used to zip around the sky in airplanes a few eons ago.
To perceive things such as trees and buildings through images delivered to the eye, the brain uses wholeness, simultaneity, and synthesis. To ferret out the meaning of alphabetic writing, the brain relies instead on sequence, analysis, and abstraction. Custom and language associate the former characteristics with the feminine, the latter, with the masculine.
And never mind that study after study has shown that women are, on average, considerably more skilled at the use of words, have far larger vocabularies, and are more skilled at both written and verbal communication than men. And never mind that study after study also shows that men are, on average, more skilled at spatial relations, at conceiving mentally of three dimensional objects (hence the dominance of men in engineering and architecture), and are less skilled at written and verbal communication than women. These facts he dismisses with a wave of his hand, saying:
Despite these studies attributing different image and word skills to each sex, I will present many cultural, mythological, and historical examples that will solidly connect the feminine principle to images and the masculine one to written words. Again, I will use the terms “masculine” and “feminine” in their transcendent sense.
In other words, “When I use the words masculine and feminine, it has no relationship to men and women. They mean whatever I want them to mean, and I’ll change them as I please.” And don’t bother to bring up the fact that women’s equality has increased in direct relationship to the degree of literacy and education around the world over the last couple hundred years either. Such inconvenient facts are easily dismissed. After all, they were likely written down and writing is bad. Except when you’re writing about the dangers of writing. And does it really need to be said that pens are not only shaped like a penis, they are 80% identical in written form? Mr. Freud, call your office. We got a live one.
Postscript: Thanks to Jim Flannery for pointing me to a couple of other places that have put Dr. Shlain in their crosshairs. First, Michael Shermer in the Skeptic online:
I had Shlain on my radio show a couple of weeks ago. He’s a complete crack pot. He’s a brain surgeon, but he’s still a crack pot. He has no idea how history or archaeology are done, not a clue. If he practiced brain surgery like he practices history and archaeology he would lose his license to practice medicine. There is absolutely nothing to it. He’s even wrong about the invention of the alphabet, so from page 1 on he’s blown it (he’s off by about 1500 years). This book is a waste of trees.
I pointed out to Shlain, as politely as I could, that the test of a theory is how it does with exceptions. For example, I noted that the Yamamano of Brazil and many tribes of the Papau New Guineans, with no alphabet and completely illiterate (and thus, presumably, not left brain dominant as a culture), routinely beat, kill, and enslave their women. Jared Diamond tells me the tribe in New Guinea he studies regularly swap wives for pigs and cows. Shlain’s response: All of these pre-literate people have been contaminated by anthropologists, who rewired their left-hemispheres by virtue of being present. (I’m not kidding–that was his answer!)
This is what we might call the “Gods Must be Crazy” theory of contamination. Napoleon Chagnon tells me that his critics have accused him of teaching the Yamamano people to be violent by virtue of his presence among them as a western, patriarchal male.
The exception, says Shlain, is the people who DO treat their women equally–they apparently have not been contaminated. Where are these people, I inquired? He said they were in the PAST and we know them from archaeological digs. And what about the Nazis, I suggested, given their heavy emphasis on visual mediums like film, dance, art, photography, etc. They were not exactly known for their egalitarianism, with their heavy emphasis on German women as breeding machines for the thousand year Reich. Ah, but the GERMANS are so well read and their left brains are SO dominant that they wash out those right- brain influences! And so it went for half an hour on the air.
I threw out another half dozen examples of disconfirming evdience, at which point he said “I’m not claiming a causal connection here. I cannot prove that literacy CAUSES patriarchy. I am merely saying that it is interesting that there is this correlation between the rise of literacy and the rise of patriarchy.” I said: “Yes, it is interesting that the rise of hem-lines in women’s skirts is correlated with the rise of the stock market, but who would write a book about it?” He was not amused.