a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

origins of human patriarchy, and where we may go from here

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The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world … The point, however, is to change it.

Karl Marx

In a sense we [Beauvoir & Sartre] both lacked a real family, and we had elevated this contingency into a principle.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life

 

I’m not a historian, or an anthropologist, or a palaeontologist, or a primatologist, though I’ve taken in many shreds of those subjects, all of which might help to illuminate the mystery of patriarchy, the default state of the vast majority of human cultures throughout the period of sapiens existence – as far as we’re able to tell. Of course, we’ve been around for some 300,000 years, according to the most recent findings, but we don’t really know much about our socio-sexual relations beyond the last 10,000 years – or 20,000 at the outside. And there are so many mysteries – the beginning of human language, for example, which I imagine as originating in a complexifying amalgam of gesture and sound. And the beginnings of the notion of possession and property, which, in terms of male possession of females, can be seen in gorillas, lions (though the females do the hunting, and are no shrinking violets), chimps, baboons and, arguably, orangutans (which are largely solitary). Female dominant species include elephants and orcas (and of course bonobos), some of the smartest and most communally successful species on the planet.

How did H sapiens, and H neanderthalensis, organise themselves socio-sexually, say 50,000 years ago? I mention Neanderthals because I’m nearing the end of Kindred, Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ extraordinarily rich and detailed book on the subject, which makes little or no mention, even speculatively, on gender roles. What I did find was a great deal of focus on lithics and tool-making, which we tend to associate with males, though I see no reason why females would not be engaged in this activity in earlier times.

A blog piece I’ve discovered (linked below) argues that the size difference between male and female humans has been diminishing over the millennia. This has certainly been the case in the WEIRD world over the past few decades, when every human and her dog has become overweight (he wrote while downing another chardonnay with his pizza). This piece also argues for different roles (but not necessarily in a hierarchical sense) for the sexes based on consistently different teeth wear at numerous Neanderthal sites over thousands of years across the length and breadth of Eurasia.

Travel forward to the historical period – the period starting with the development and dissemination of writing – and we encounter a god-besotted world. Some of the first inscriptions we find are the names of gods, and it’s also notable that these early gods – Anu (Sumerian), Ra (Egyptian), Marduk (Babylonian), Brahma (Hindustani) and Zeus (Greek), were male. There were of course female gods, and ‘households’ of gods, but the principal deity was male, an indication that patriarchy was well established throughout the literate world a few millennia ago. It was also a world full of warfare, violence and mind-boggling cruelty, both within and between ‘states’. If you require evidence, read the first hundred pages or so of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s massive work The World: a family history. It should silence the critics of Pinker’s ‘better angels of our nature’ thesis, but it probably won’t. And with the odd notable exception, the warfare and slaughter was carried out by males. It’s interesting to remind myself that while all the horrors of Shalmaneser, Nebuchadnezzar, Darius, Ying Zheng, Sulla, Caesar and countless other warlords were being perpetrated, bonobos were doing their merry thing south of the Congo River, far from that madding crowd. And just north of that river, chimps were doing their small share of squabbling and killing.

Getting back to religion, the European success of the Roman Empire, and its eventual ‘capture’ by Christian monotheism, marked the beginning of the WEIRD world, according to Joseph Henrich. As he points out, the Catholic Church, which over time created a five-tiered male hierarchy of popes, cardinals, archbishops, bishops and priests, was essentially the Christian Church, or simply the Church, from the fourth century CE to the reformation of the 16th century. During that time, Henrich persuasively argues, the Church transformed the world over which it held sway in subtle but significant ways, often to enrich and further empower itself. The key to that transformation was the Church’s marriage and family program (MFP). To be clear, this wasn’t a program drawn up by a Church Committee some time in the fourth century. There was nothing pre-meditated about it, and the result was in no way predicted, but it arguably set the foundations for the WEIRD values espoused today.

One key to all this was to break down the generally inward-facing kinship relationships of pre-Christian Eurasia. Before the Church’s interventions, linguistic and ethnic groups generally behaved in decidedly unWEIRD ways, but ways that are still found in regions dotted around the globe. Henrich provides an open-ended list:

  1. People lived enmeshed in kin-based organisations within tribal groups or networks. Extended family households were part of larger kin-groups (clans, houses, lineages, etc), some of which were called sippen (Germanic) or septs (Celtic).
  2. Inheritance and postmarital residence had patrilineal biases; people often lived in extended patrilineal households, and wives often moved to live with their husbands’ kinfolk.
  3. Many kinship units collectively owned or controlled territory. Even when individual ownership existed, kinfolk often retained inheritance rights such that lands couldn’t be sold or otherwise transferred without the consent of relatives.
  4. Large kin-based organisations provided individuals with both their legal and their social identities. Disputes within kin-groups were adjudicated internally, according to custom. Corporate responsibility meant that intentionality sometimes played little role in assigning punishments or levying fines for disputes between kin-groups.
  5. Kin-based organisations provided members with protection, insurance and security. These organisations cared for sick, injured, and poor members, as well as the elderly.
  6. Arranged marriages with relatives were customary, as were marriage payments like dowry or bride price (where the groom or his family pays for the bride).
  7. Polygynous marriages were common for high-status men. In many communities, men could pair with only one ‘primary’ wife, typically someone of roughly equal status, but could then add secondary wives, usually of lower social status
                 Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest people in the world, pp 162-3

Henrich then presents a table of Church decrees, beginning in the fourth century and becoming more extreme as it increased its power, outlawing as incest marriage even up to sixth cousins, as well as with in-laws (sororate and levirate marriage). Marriage with non-Christians was also proscribed, and the Church enforced its own role as mandatory for officiating at marriages, ‘Christenings’ and the like. In fact the term ‘in-law’ derives from Canon Law as it was used to ‘officially’ order human relationships. These increasingly strict laws could sometimes be bent or broken through the payment of ‘Indulgences’, but it’s clear that many Church leaders came to believe their own propaganda, which they would back up with whatever scriptural passages they could find.

The power of Church laws, which determined the very legitimacy of human lives, was brought home to me as an adolescent reading Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbevilles, in which Tess Durbeyfield, a simple country girl of Wessex, is impregnated by Alex d’Urberville, an upper-class rake, and is refused permission to christen the dying child, born ‘out of wedlock’, so that she has to bury the boy herself, beyond church grounds – just the start of Tess’s ordeals. I remember feeling both shattered by Tess’s sufferings and contemptuous of the behaviour of Christians and the absurd concept of ‘illegitimacy’. By Hardy’s time, England had become decidedly anti-Catholic, but the Church had done its work in determining the very bona fides of human existence, work which has only been undone in recent times, thanks to pioneering humanists like Thomas Hardy.

It’s probably reasonable to assume that the Church’s aim in all this was to extend its power, and that the development of ‘love’ based marriage, or a union based on common interests, was an unintended consequence. Certainly the Church’s proscriptions released individuals from earlier kin-based responsibilities, and left them free to choose partners based on mutual attraction. It also widened individuals’ sense of allegiance from kinship groups to like-minded political, social, work-based and even sporting associations.

Another unintended consequence was the lessening of patriarchal control, via patrilineal kinship relations – somewhat ironic given the highly patriarchal nature of the Church. The choosing of partners on the basis of mutual interests smacked – shock, horror – of gender equality. This has led, ultimately, but really inevitably, to the choosing of partners of the same gender. And the reduced power of the Catholic Church – even amongst avowed Catholics, strangely enough, at least in moral issues – has led to a world of ‘cultural Catholics’ or ‘cafeteria Catholics’, who seem to be only in it for the pomp and circumstance, or a certain degree of camaraderie.

It seems weird that the WEIRD world, which is becoming weirder with its acceptance of or creation of a broadening range of sexual sub-types – agender, cisgender, genderfluid, genderqueer, intersex, gender nonconforming, and transgender – might owe its origins to the Church, but somehow it seems fitting to me. Meanwhile, priestly paedophilia seems to have been largely a consequence of that Church’s own bizarre and inhuman anti-sex restrictions on its trained messengers of the Holy Spirit. It has been weakened by the ensuing scandals – another small blow to patriarchy. Patriarchy didn’t of course originate with the Church, nor can its defeat, if that ever comes, be sheeted home to its capitalising edicts. The WEIRD world’s intelligentsia, and increasingly its leadership, has been freed from the narrow confines of religion and patriarchy into a more accurate understanding of humanity, its origins in the biosphere, and its capacities. But I admit to being impatient with the pace of change. If we don’t see a larger and more dominant role for the female of the species, and soon, the future looks grim.

References

Kindred: Neanderthal life, love, death and art, by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, 2020

The WEIRDest people in the world, Joseph Henrich, 2020

Written by stewart henderson

August 23, 2023 at 11:20 am

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