Thus Spake Zuska

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Ask a Scienceblogger asks: ” What’s the deal with “virgin birth” (parthenogenesis)?”

Many people, when they hear “virgin birth”, think of the Virgin Mary. But all good Catholics know that Mary, Queen of Heaven, is not a true example of parthenogenesis. Really – do you imagine that the Catholic church would let a mere female lay sole claim to giving birth to the God-child? God had to send his “Holy Spirit” down to help Mary along and cuckold poor Joseph. Mary may be the Handmaid of the Lord and the Vessel of Selfless Service but no pope is going to give her sole credit for Jesus.

No, for a vivid utopian account of human parthenogenesis, I am afraid you will have to avert your eyes from the Bible and turn instead to…

…Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland. The Wikipedia entry on Herland offers a decent synopsis, and the full text is available here. In Herland, the best that modern science (circa 1910) has to offer is pitted against Gilman’s vision of an all-female society where crime doesn’t exist and the forests are treasured, manicured sources of nourishment. Three men bumble their way into this Utopian society and adapt to varying degrees. There, they are befuddled by their inability to engage the residents of Herland in the “normal” social dynamics prevalent between males and females in their home society. After they get over their shock that a civilized society sans men is possible, they soon discover, to their chagrin, that “It’s as if our being men was a minor incident.” Gender, or at least as they understand it, is irrelevant in Herland, and in particular the masculine gender doesn’t have much of a role to play. They are on unfamiliar footing. Their tutors point out to them the general uselessness of the male of the species throughout nature.

My fellow Scienceblogger Grrl might be especially pleased to know that in Gilman’s utopia, the cats have been bred to kill vermin but leave birds alone. I think that’s a particularly nice touch. The discussion of cats and dogs in Herland is a riot.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Herland:

“The tradition of men as guardians and protectors had quite died out. These stalwart virgins had no men to fear and therefore no need of protection.”

Herland has its faults (including the nod to Aryanism), but it will make you think sharply about gender, class, agriculture, the rearing of children, and social relations in general in ways you never have before. In many ways, Herland really does seem like utopia, and if they managed to design a good working vibrator, then hey, what’s not to love?

Comments

  1. #1 Alpha
    December 3, 2007

    Wow, a world of indecisiveness.

  2. #2 agnostic
    December 3, 2007

    Reading the ethnographic record, or summaries of it, will teach you more about the sexes than some Utopian novel. Would you try to understand how birds fly and humans don’t by reading a novel where gravity is assumed out of existence?

    In particular, most collective goods would not be produced — look at any hunter-gatherer society. Women prefer gathering or hunting things that come in small packages and that are shared only among their immediate kin (nuts, berries, palm starch, mussels, etc.), while men prefer hunting or gathering things that come in large packages and that are appropriated by the group (large game, large packages of honey, etc.).

    If the point is just that “evolution could have gone another way,” well, OK. But if the point is, “could this Utopia happen from now on” — not without a massive change in human biological evolution.

    Also, while both sexes are complicit in getting into the trap of agriculture, which was pretty bad at the start, and males are overrepresented among those who nearly destroyed the world — we’re also overrepresented among those who dug us out of the hellhole. Science, medicine, technology, etc.

    Beware the argument that females were simply kept out of medical research, but would’ve contributed just as much if they’d been allowed in. That cuts both ways: they were kept out of high military and economic positions, and would’ve contributed just as much to nearly destroying the world if they’d been allowed in.

  3. #3 agnostic
    December 3, 2007

    I should add “collective services” too, though that’s implicit — the army, police, firefighters, and other guys who “stand watch” in various ways, at serious personal risk. I hope no buildings ever catch on fire in the female Utopia.

  4. #4 Jokerine
    December 3, 2007

    I thought “Herland” was really cool. And, dear Agnostic, if you had read the book, you might have notied, that the women themselves fight fire. What Zuska meant, was that men were not needed to protect women from other men.

    Oh, and Gillman Perkins does base her story on a massive change in human biology.

  5. #5 agnostic
    December 3, 2007

    All right, last comment (sorry, can’t resist, the post is too hilarious). Any Utopia like that described — no matter the sex composition — is highly unstable. You’re an engineer, so that should be one of the first qualities of a system that you think of.

    If there were any males left in the world at all, they would very easily invade and take over the female Utopia, again with more raping and pillaging than they could get away with if they invaded a society with plenty of male soldiers resisting them.

    So suppose you wiped out all males and reproduced asexually or however. Do females, in the absence of males, get along in splendid harmony? Nope — girls at all-girls schools still gossip and rip each other to shreds.

    In the Utopia, genetic mutation would not stop — at some point, mutations will arise that made a female more dominant, butt-kicking, physically strong, as well as selfish and exploitative, compared to the local average. She and any others like her would invade and take over the Utopians just as easily as their male counterparts would have in the scenario above.

    So, read the literature on the evolution of altruism — the Utopia you describe would never evolve since it’s incredibly unstable. The only way around it is to evolve like eusocial insects do — they are very kind to members of their own group, but also stand watch very fiercely in colony-vs-colony battles. Of course, if they were humans, we’d describe them as blind jingoists who wage ethnic warfare — hardly a Utopia!

  6. #6 agnostic
    December 3, 2007

    Jokerine — I know what she meant. The point is: it’s not true. It’s easy to assume a world where females would be as likely to be good firefighters as current males are. But that wouldn’t happen without lots of biological change, both physically and psychologically.

  7. #7 Zuska
    December 3, 2007

    Agnostic, clearly you have no clue what the novel is about. Nor do you seem to realize that it is a novel, i.e., speculative fiction, i.e., changing the parameters and asking “what if?” Read the goddamn book before you start blah-blahing about how everything in it is impossible. I mean, duh, human parthenogenesis itself is pretty freakin’ unbelievable so if you can’t suspend disbelief enough on that to get into the novel, maybe you shouldn’t be considering fiction at all.

    That “women prefer small packages, men prefer large packages” stuff is just hilarious. Is that another evolutionary psychology just-so story? I always love those. You can put forth just about any theory you want that way.

  8. #8 bill
    December 3, 2007

    Feeling a little threatened, agnostic? I think your commentary is longer than Zuska’s post — and all, apparently, without having even read the book in question.

  9. #9 PhysioProf
    December 3, 2007

    “Women prefer gathering or hunting things that come in small packages and that are shared only among their immediate kin (nuts, berries, palm starch, mussels, etc.), while men prefer hunting or gathering things that come in large packages and that are appropriated by the group (large game, large packages of honey, etc.).”

    Are you fucking kidding!?

  10. #10 Susan
    December 3, 2007

    I’ve often read about the thought experiments where all the men dissappear and only women are left to run the world. It’s always this non-violent utopian paradise. I don’t buy it. In this (more) equal oppertunity world, the rates of violence between teen-aged girls has gone up considerably. The fact that people like Ayn Rand, Anne Coulter and Margaret Thatcher exist(ed) doesn’t give me much hope for the all female run planet. I realize that these women probably got into the positions they got in society by playing a man’s game, but, maybe it’s a biologically determined game? The weak overpowering the strong? For all the wives who have been abused by their husbands, there are plenty of children who have been abused by their mothers.
    If you want to check out the all-women run planet concept read a comic called “Y The Last Man”, It’s finishing up it’s last (#60) issue this month, available in graphic novel editions and drawn by my friend Pia Guerra. (Published by Vertigo)…Sorry, couldn’t resist doing a plug.

  11. #11 the real Napoleon Champagne
    December 3, 2007

    Susan:
    “For all the wives who have been abused by their husbands, there are plenty of children who have been abused by their mothers.” Amen!! I have been saying what you said here for years ( I am a man) and always labeled massage-ynist.

    Worse, we knew that already–all these years, and the last generation of fems denied it, suppressed the info etc, as well as info about wgo *initiates* the majority of domestic violence incidents–>>women. Women are daily kicking the crap out of kids, blackmailing kids, and coercing kids.

    I think it is fair to say that power seeking/tripping jerks are a unilateral phenomenon, not limited to men only. Who says men wrote the rules or built the glass ceiolings anyways? Watch girls on the playground, and later in life, and you will see what everyone sees: girls are very mean, cliquish, and rule based little brutes in and of themselves, sans patriarchy.

    Most laughably, all of this talk about useless men takes place in a culture ( feminist spawned rhetoric) that at once bitches about rape ( which is equivalent too the primary mating ritual amongst many animals) and then again props up a police state culture that renders men useless in this alleged mating function. Without cops and guns, then, women are useless, for anything buit a piece of ass, if we buy into either side of the black and white dialectic.

  12. #12 etbnc
    December 4, 2007

    A web search for “feminist science fiction” turns up some excellent supplementary resources.

    Since I tend to dislike the prose style from the era of Herland, I prefer more recent speculative fiction. Alice Sheldon, writing as James Tiptree, Jr., (yeah, let’s pause to ponder that) published some of the benchmark stories to explore gender and culture. And Joanna Russ wrote several stories about a place called Whileaway which I think of as an update to Herland.

    Cheers

  13. #13 Mecha
    December 4, 2007

    It’s worth considering that utopian literature in general is long since discredited as literalism or literally possible (and when was the last time anyone wrote anything but a dystopian view of a ‘utopia’ as the core part of anything? It’s basically a trope now in sci-fi: Anything that seems like a utopia is really evil. You can set your watch by it.) A number of peoples’ complaints seem to be going along these lines, and they sorta miss the point. Zuska explained the what-if thing before, but I wanted to expand on it a bit (with a nod to Y because I think it shows how Y and Herland can be two sides of a similar coin.)

    Note how one of the core things that Zuska brought up is the idea of gender being irrelevant, which is an interesting utopia concept in its own right, but only feminist or queer writings have ever explored gender AT ALL until recently. You could easily explore the same concept in an interesting manner with a book about men. But very few men that weren’t feminist allies would come up with such a concept to begin with (Ex: Making a world where you don’t have to be ‘masculine’? Where you don’t have to prove how straight you are, and how strong you are, and how unemotional you are, how stubborn you are, and all the other things that people tell us are ‘masculine’ and that guys ‘have to do’ or ‘will always do’ to keep from being called a woman or gay? Sign me the hell up.)

    This is in contrast to Y, the Last Man (for those of you that have read it ;) which deals with men being _taken_ and as such, there’s a void of ‘what men are/were’ that has to be filled. It’s much more about a discovery process on all sides. It also deals with the reality of 50%-ish of the populace just disappearing. There’s a huge human toll there that is different than Herland, just flat out. They both deal with a steady state perturbed by something, but Herland starts with the utopia steady state and perturbs it with ‘normalcy’, while Y starts with normalcy, and perturbs it with a very unsteady reality. Since we’re used to normalcy, Y inherently feels more realistic. In my mind, Y deals with the direct elimination of men, but not masculinity because people have it internalized, and it does it in the social context of the modern day (both in-book and out of book.) Herland talks of life without men or masculinity, and it does it in the social context of womens suffrage and womens rights.

    Utopian books tend to leave out the ‘how’ or have weak hows, precisely because people know that they’re not realism, but explorations. Similarly, Y uses a genre specific ‘how’ that is unrealistic (literally all the men in the world dropping dead) to explore a different space. You ultimately have to take them both for what they are, in different ways. What-if explorations of concepts.

    -Mecha

  14. #14 Acer
    December 5, 2007

    Alpha, I have decided that you are a jackass. See, that wasn’t very hard.

    the Real Napoleon Champagne– you give no cite for any of your claims. also, who has ever denied that women abuse children? That would be ridiculous. It’s equally as obvious that girls aren’t always nice to each other. However, they’re not picking on each other “sans patriarchy”, there is nowhere in our culture that is “sans patriarchy” and you can bet that even elementary-aged girls know quite a bit about patriarchy already. I suspect that an all-female utopia would be entirely peaceful and Edenic. But we don’t actually know that, because the patriarchy is so damn pervasive that it’s impossible for women to interact in its absence.

    “Who says men built the glass ceilings anyway?” Well, I guess that all those women who were barred from education, government, leadership, and autonomy for thousands of years are just oppressing themselves! It is certainly my fault that the dean of my department is another misogynistic fuckwad who does his best not to hire female faculty because “they don’t know how to think rationally” or “they’ll just have babies and leave”. Because women are clearly setting up that hierarchy. I think that statement of yours was the stupidest thing I’ve heard all day. Are you this dumb in real life or are you just a bad writer?

    And rape is “the primary mating ritual among many species”? Huh, no. Dancing is a common mating ritual, though (among birds and insects), fighting is a mating ritual among a lot of mammals, female choice (GASP) is another common mating ritual (also for a lot of birds– males aggregate and show off, or stake out territories and show off, and females choose who they’re going to mate with.) Simply mating with your herd’s dominant male is pretty common, releasing your gametes into the water and letting them find somebody else’s gametes is very common, but rape is not all that common as a “mating ritual”. Certain kinds of animals (many ducks, for example) do rape, and often, but you can bet the female duck doesn’t mistake it for a “mating ritual”– if you read about duck sexual behavior, it will be pretty clear. Rape is not a primary mating ritual among our closest relatives– bonobos, in particular, just don’t do that. You really ARE dumb. Or maybe you’ve never read an evolutionary biology textbook in your life.

    Sorry, Zuska, for the really long comment and for ad homineming your commenters. I’ve been lurking for awhile, and in higher education in science for awhile and have had it up to HERE with men who troll feminist blogs making shit up to support their agendas. Why does your blog have such a high percentage of them, do you think?

  15. #15 Zuska
    December 5, 2007

    Mecha, awesome comment. I was enjoying reading it and wondering who offered up such an interesting discussion and voila! There you were.

    Acer: my blog has a high percentage of male trolls because they are so threatened by what I write. They troll to reassure themselves that their narrow petty sexist worldviews need not be disturbed. Few of them are worth my puke on their shoes.

  16. #16 Alpha
    December 6, 2007

    I forgot as Acer has pointed out. It would be a world of nagging and no humor.

  17. #17 Mecha
    December 6, 2007

    Zuska: Well, thanks for the compliment. ;)

    If you enjoy the media analysis stuff muchly, you could consider spending some time (if you had time!) on http://thehathorlegacy.info/ . I’m not an author there due to me not really having anything approaching a regular enough schedule to do such a thing, but it’s big on the feminist media analysis of all sorts of media, and has been growing in its connections to other medias beyond film/TV and feminist blogs.

    (I will also directly second reading Y if you can afford to pick up trade paper backs and could go for a graphic novel. It is, at the least, interesting, whether you agree with the thoughts in it or not. I’m not a big fan of how the male main still gets to be somewhat central because of being the Last Man, but on the other hand, 1) That causes its own message on the parts of the people who consider him central 2) It passes the Bechnel Test/’Mo Movie Measure’ as a matter of course. ;)

    -Mecha

  18. #18 the real Androgyna Trufem
    December 6, 2007

    Acer: I see why you have a moniker that infers the phrase “in the hole”.
    Nuf said?
    NOT…you won’t get off so easy ( pun intended)
    Now, next time you deconstruct an argument, note how patronizing your tone is! I do not owe you any citations Professor ( was it Massage-N-Istick fuckwad?) Be nice to your dean! learn from your Dean! Oh–I see you have done that! You sound just like him;-)
    Now About Evo Bio: have you watched the lions ( I bet you have, with eager interest;-)– Or the Sharks ( i know YOU must have seen their acts of *sigh* love and ‘non- aggression’…and especially, I know you have watched and watched and watched your cousins the Bonos;-)
    Oh, and thanks for mentioning the Mighty love packin’ ducks! *the thrill is never gone when the primary act of relation is L_O_V_E* <3
    So in your dancing your way to romance *head in clouds or elsewhere* world, a world evidently replete with gestures of *love* like Mother and Daughter g-g rubbing,and auntie to niece and nephew g-g rubs, licks, etc– and *lovely* matriarchal longing for a world free of violence ( have you seen how brutish, and violent, and socially destructive those female Bono’s are to any poor motherless male? How they coerce and manipulate those males, and males with low ranked mothers?)
    Yes…I follow your construct, quite easily…just let me huff some more of that laughing gas ( is it left over from one of Andrea D.s post mortem methane blasts?), and I can follow you to *the end of the world…*…
    **sigh**…
    But here in reality – and thank you for your acknowledgement of child abusing women- the rest of us have been inundated with this bogus imagery of a “rape culture”, and yes Virginia, the primary act of *sex* in that Feminiz pozited world izz *rape*….

    oh, wait!!!
    I can see the pretty horsies out their in the field!
    The strong handsome entirely desiring and nice teachable, trainable, and gentle buck is gleefully chasing the giddy mare!
    She is welcoming his advances! Perhaps they are in a meaningful, relationship focused dialogue…OOOoooPPPs!!
    She is kicking him in the face!
    She is bucking her heels at his shins!…and then…
    *gasp*
    She is waving her hot and bothered drippy and smelly posterior towards his nose!!!
    *sigh*
    LOVE….
    As he mounts, biting her to the point of blood on her whithers….snarling teeth grip her mane and neck…
    *aaaahhh, L-O-V-E*
    And then, my favorite, the old womans best friend, the declawed doggies and kitties!!! ( with one concession: I did actually see two housecats appear to make love on one occasion–no biting, clawing, or anything! And then, when they were done they stayed near each other , licking fur and grooming each other with what appeared to be smiles on their faces!)
    Get the point? One of us has studied TOO many textbooks, and NOT ENOUGH REALITY….but NO, Virginia Bonobo, humans do not have to be that way, but I digresss.
    What I really meant to talk about was that feministed CSCL professor, with her Victorian hair, and her Victorias Secret spiked heels, and how utterly REDUNDANT female Ph.D. Feminiz’s are, especially when they yak on and on about how “men sexualize everything,” and in the next breath remark about the image of a man on her slideshow ” He’s so-ooo hot…” Yikes sayeth I, I smell a double sided horse posterior: and then the nerve to talk about her habit of using unprescribed Ritalin before class…and of course the gap toothed and angry rotund Goth girl is lauded in class for her comment “And what about all those fucking men!!”, while the Opie hair shocked kid with the Pierre Bordieux in hand is downgraded for his thesis of disparities of class habitus….
    So: do you really want citations? I fear this blog isn’t long enough, nor is your patience at reading through the last thirty years of gender war and statistics.
    But you can look up some of the scant, but fortunately emerging dialogue, like Renee Koonin, Ruth Mathews,et al and for Dom Vio stats, the best is Martin Feibert USC.–but any ‘mens blog’ can point you to the other side of the dialogue, if your heavily weighted femtrawler ever needs balast.
    Just never mind that definitional problem about how we define acts of violence and rape, because as those sources will all show you, their are DEFINITELY definitional double standardsm starting with the first five to eight years of a childs life and ‘normative’ maternal/other female caregiver practices;-)
    Zuska: Sorry if you feel you were trolled. I will save you the time of needing to say that again if you prefer. I was in fact referred here by a favorite blogger of mine, who kind of digs your blog: but if you need to be so downgrading and douche like, engineering readership scandal, I can skip this blogs redundant line of ‘attack engineered’ crap any day–most blogs that flatter themselves thinking they are “trolled” are actually just some venomous, humorless, narcisisstic idiot with like, 4 readers, whose mental vomit is all smell, no substance, and their shoes are always Payless.
    BUT: If it wasn’t me you were referencing, it has been fun;-)

  19. #19 a reader
    December 7, 2007

     

    Huh?

     

  20. #20 Zuska
    December 10, 2007

    Whoa, Real Androgyna Trufem, somebody needs to adjust your medication…

  21. #21 the real Unmedicated One
    December 11, 2007

    AHA!! As I suspected!! You DO have a sense of humor;-)
    . .
    .
    But…even the left is sold on Orwellian idea of medicating the unbridled intellect;-( . .
    NeigghHHHHHh-hhh…..ppnnhhmmppplhhhh…..*paw**paw* . .
    .dust everywhere…. .
    . . . .
    .
    .
    . . . .

  22. #22 Tricia
    December 13, 2007

    Hi Zuska, I found this post through the Carnival of Feminists and hereby blame you for my having spent the afternoon reading Herland, instead of doing what I was supposed to do.

    What a fascinating read! I think what I found most revealing about it was that it kept on coming back to the “radical notion that women are human”. Even now in the 21st century it gave me a lot to think about.

  23. #23 Muse142
    December 15, 2007

    This kept me up until 6 AM reading.

    Totally. Awesome.

  24. #24 Zarquon
    December 15, 2007

    the cats have been bred to kill vermin but leave birds alone. I think that’s a particularly nice touch.

    Then everyone died from a nasty case of bird flu spread by pigeons. The End.

  25. #25 kozmetik
    December 23, 2007

    Totally. Awesome.

  26. #26 feromon
    December 31, 2007

    Then everyone died from a nasty case of bird flu spread by pigeons. The End.

  27. #27 cen
    December 31, 2007

    I hope no buildings ever catch on fire in the female Utopia.

  28. #28 Zuska
    January 2, 2008

    Zarquon and Feromon, you are hereby awarded the “I Have No Clue What Speculative Fiction Is For And Just Want To Be Snarky And Show Off My Misogyny” award. Congratulations!

  29. #29 Site Ekle
    January 5, 2008

    Watch girls on the playground, and later in life, and you will see what everyone sees: girls are very mean, cliquish, and rule based little brutes in and of themselves, sans patriarchy.

  30. #30 etbnc
    January 9, 2008

    Folks who want to learn about human behavior by watching children on playgrounds might benefit from learning a bit about social psychology and cultural anthropology before drawing conclusions.

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