Sunday, July 15, 2007

Becoming Human

Last year I read Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture, Chris Knight's fascinating book that persuasively argues, as the book jacket puts it, that human culture "was the product of an immense social, sexual, and political revolution initiated by women". It was via this interview at Ready Steady Book that I was introduced to Knight and subsequently sought out his work (I posted about this interview before, specifically focusing on what Knight says in it about Noam Chomsky and Richard Dawkins). I'm glad I did: Blood Relations has become probably the best, most exciting science book I've read. I didn't write about it at the time because I didn't want to misrepresent it. He covers a lot of territory, and an overly simplistic summary seemed all too likely. But I am moved to bring it up today through an unexpected convergence in my mind of a couple of other books I'm reading.

First, a brief overview of the theory detailed in Blood Relations. The basic idea is that the emergence of human culture is rooted in gender solidarity. Women, as individuals, needed to be able to take care of their offspring and also to induce men into providing food and protection, who would otherwise instead simply try to spread their seed all over the place by having sex with as many women as possible, leaving the individual women to fend for themselves. To ensure that men could not go elsewhere for sex, women needed to band together to ensure that none of them was available at certain times. This was effected through a general sex-strike, through which women collectively said "No!" to men. This, in turn, was effected through menstrual synchronization--if all women in the group were menstruating at more or less the same time, men could not simply move on to another member of the group if "his" partner was refusing him. Several chapters are devoted to a lengthy investigation into the ethnographic record, revealing that the many stories and taboos found in countless variations in 'primitive' cultures throughout the world, share several key similarities and indeed make a lot more sense when understood in the context of this theory. Blood taboos--the equation of menstrual blood with blood from killed meat. Sex taboos--against incest, against sex during a woman's period. Taboos against men eating the meat of animals they themselves have killed (and the widespread reports of guilt when they do). The use of red ochre in initiation rites and in art. Origin stories, hunting rituals, cooking rituals.

Knight was inspired by findings in sociobiology and feminist anthropology, and comes out of an avowedly Marxist background. With its apparent emphasis on genes competing for survival, some political critics from the left have read The Selfish Gene, Dawkins' classic book on evolutionary theory, as reactionary. As I said in my earlier post, I see no reason to read the book in this way. Nor does Knight. In the RSB interview mentioned earlier, he said: "It was precisely selfish gene theory which exploded the earlier idea that natural selection pitted 'race' against 'race'. The left's response to this scientific revolution was embarrassingly ignorant and self-destructive," even if Dawkins himself tends not to be interested in "theories which investigate the sexual, social and foraging strategies of evolving humans." Knight quotes Dawkins: "We, alone on earth, [...] can rebel against the tryanny of the selfish replicators."

In a brief discussion of Dawkins' theory of memes (introduced in The Selfish Gene), Knight argues that: "Politics must be centre stage in any discussion of 'memes'. This is because a condition of memic immortality is at least a relative absence of political conflict." The egalitarian society that must have been the result of the "human revolution" (enabling us to "transcend the level of determinism which is represented by competition between genes") was the precondition necessary for this memic immortality--the transmission and perpetuation of culture--to be possible.

Now, to the books that have brought this back up for me. For a variety of reasons, I've been brushing up on the Enlightenment (one reason: to continue my goal to, as Casey put it with respect to himself, "make up for the neglect I have suffered at the hands of public education"). As part of this, I'm reading Peter Gay's intellectual history, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation/The Rise of Modern Paganism (published in 1966). The thinkers of the Enlightenment, of course, saw reason and science, skepticism and criticism as the ways forward, out of the darkness of superstition and religion, toward freedom in all spheres of human life. Early in his book, Gay describes the differences between two basic mentalities with which people confront their world--the mythopoeic and the critical. Mythical thinking
is not necessarily primitive, monotonous, purely superstitious, or prelogical [...] . Mythical thinking is true thinking; it reduces the world to order, but its categories are unsettled, alive. They shift under the potent pressure of immediate experience or become rigid under the equally overwhelming weight of tradition. [. . .]

Mythical thinking is a collective term describing a wide variety of mental operations. It can be observed in all its purity among primitive peoples, while it was overlaid among advanced ancient civilizations by touches of rationality, beauty of expression, and complexity of institutions. Yet mythical thinking seems to crumble at the edges first; its basic logical operations remain intact long after civilizations have acquired large rational sectors. [. . .] In the mythmaking mind, state and universe, king and god, man and nature, stood for and melted into each other. Ancient man did not think that his king resembled divinity: he was divine, the true son and accredited representative of a god. Ritual did not recall a miraculous event, it was that event. The warrior who fashioned a little statue of an enemy and then pierced it with a dagger was not merely uttering a ceremonial wish to harm the enemy: the doll was the enemy, and the damage to the doll was identical with the damage done in combat--indeed, in a sense hard for the scientific mind to grasp, it was that combat. Since empirical verification was severely restricted to certain practical operations, the efficacy of the ceremony could not be rendered questionable by continued good health of the enemy. Proof and disproof are categories in a matrix of thought alien to the mythopoeic mind. (Gay; 89-90)
Whereas critical thinking relies on those very qualities that are absent in mythical thinking.

Knight's account of the origins of culture is not, he emphasizes late in Blood Relations, a brand-new scientific paradigm, but instead fits squarely in the Marxist tradition of anthropology. In light of that, it is important to note, he writes, that Marx and Engels saw their revolution as scientific and believed that politics should be subordinated to science, not the other way around (perhaps contrary to common conceptions of Marxists): "Their idea was not that science is inadequate, and that politics must replace it or be added to it. It was that science--when fearlessly true to itself--is intrinsically revolutionary, and that it must recognize no other politics than its own. (Knight; 520)" No doubt the leading figures of the Enlightenment would agree.

Knight offers a provocative conception of science, one that appeals to me a great deal. It was this that I was reminded of as I read about the claims of the Enlightenment and the distinctions noted above between critical and mythopoeic thinking. The Enlightenment looked back to and claimed as their own those ancients who, in their view, fought the good fight, on behalf of scientific knowledge, against superstition. They might have been able to look even further back, had they but known or been able to recognize (though, obviously, the eventual ability to recognize depends on the Enlightenment having come first). In Knight's theory, the act of women coming together in solidarity, engaging in eventually ritualized sex-strikes, thus creating culture--this was science. It was science because they were able to pull together--indeed, had to pull together--to solve a basic set of problems affecting their very survival: How can they care for human infants, who require much more intensive care than do other primates, and still get food to eat and get men involved (with sharing food, with protection) and avoid continuous rape? As part of his concluding thoughts, Knight writes:
Humans first became scientific--first learned to share their experiential and other findings so as to compare notes and subject them to collective scrutiny and evaluation--thanks to their discovery of what solidarity can mean. Their science, like ours, was essentially their consciousness of their own collective strength. This consciousness could become encoded in shared symbols [...] because understanding themselves could be widely shared. Basic power inequalities and political conflicts--had these existed--would have obstructed such sharing and therefore distorted the objectivity of science. Thanks to the manner in which the human revolution had been achieved, such inequalities and conflicts were not basic to the alliances within which culture evolved. The very earliest cultures therefore had no need for religious myths. Although there was plenty of room for magic--for an awareness of the world-changing potency of such activities as dance, poetry and song--religion was not needed because there was no one to mystify, no one to exploit, no one whose conceptual world needed standing on its head.
But religious myths did arise, inequalities did emerge, men took power. How? Why?
Mysticism and convoluted theologism emerged only when masculinist institutions began reasserting themselves as the first step in an immensely drawn-out process which was eventually to result in class society and so-called 'civilization'. Constructs of 'the feminine' became deified only in proportion as real women, in the flesh and blood, were deprived of their power. Goddesses, god and other miraculous powers could enrich themselves only in proportion as ordinary humans were impoverished--robbed of the magic in their own lives. Only in the course of this process was genuine science--or 'the ancient wisdom', if you prefer to call it that--progressively subjected to the distorting lenses of sectional interest, partisan special pleading and political ideology masquerading as science.

Only when social life had become irretrievably conflict-ridden was the community-wide sharing of understandings no longer possible. At this point, humanity's basic capital of accumulated knowledge became increasingly fragmented, pulled in opposite directions, fought over and--in part--monopolized by ruling elites. To the extent that shared symbols could be preserved at all, they now meant one thing to one section of society, quite another to the rest. This is the symbolic essence of all secret or esoteric cults. (Knight; 521-522)
In his detailed survey of the ethnographic record, Knight notes in several places that, built into many of the myths, into the systems of taboos and the origin stories, is the admission by men that the true power originally belonged to women and that the men took it from them and now must prevent women from taking part in it.

This question of how the initial act or series of acts might have been transformed into such elaborately ritualized behavior, brings me to the other book that brought Knight's work back to mind. Perhaps surprisingly, it is the essay collection Fiction and the Figures of Life by William H. Gass, specifically the essay titled "The Stylization of Desire". Gass begins wondering why philosophers have ignored the basic biological functions, "as if to come near the breathing, sweating, farting body were an unphilosophic act." Indeed, "We always ski on the higher slopes when we can. Countless works of rich abstraction have been written about perception. I know none on the subject of chewing." The hungry person may satisfy his or her hunger in any number of ways. The poor person does not stand on ceremony, but eats what is available, when it is available; "where the purely hungry man wished food, the mildly hungry man with choice considers vegetables and meats and fruits, considers soups and casseroles and stews, and in the object of each new desire may arrange all its probable representatives according to his preferences." Eventually, circumstances permitting, people not only don't eat just to satisfy immediate, pure hunger, but have developed specific styles of dining, ritualizing the act in service of several desires, several ultimate needs, at once. The ritual becomes as important as the need it fulfills, before finally being identified with the need itself:
The most important step in the stylization of desire, as in the stylization of anything whatever, is the amalgamation of a means with its end. This fastens the whole force of desire as firmly on the method as a leech on a leg. Success henceforth requires not only the enjoyment of the end but the use of one path to it. When I want bananas only if they are stick-struck; when I want money, power, and the love of women only because I'm the heavyweight champ; when I want my julep in a silver cup; it's clear that I've proposed a new goal for myself, a goal which possesses more than the character of an object of lust, pride, or hunger, but an additional character, a ritual one. My desire has become precise in its object and concrete in its method until the method and the object have merged. [. . .] The child often fails to distinguish means from ends in any situation, so that Christmas, for example, isn't Christmas without a tree or without a certain cake or a visit to grandmother. The child, who is forever a stylist, identifies the celebration with selected ways of celebrating, and the child may feel, as the primitive man was supposed to, that any kind of success can be guaranteed only by repeating, and by repeating exactly, everything that was done the first time. The aim is good luck and the method is magic, for the actual cause lies unknown in the welter of surrounding conditions. The result is the security that proceeds from repetition, so that if the feeling sought is lost or if the prize is not forthcoming, something in the total order of the acts was wrong--some gesture, some item of clothing, some fragment of the sacred initial occasion left out. (Gass; 197-198)
If Knight's version of the origins of culture is correct, then we can start to imagine how the initial collective refusal by women led to taboos and rituals, and eventually to the abstractions and complicated ceremonies associated with religion and civilization. Thus Gass (who I could quote from all day, he's such a joy to read):
The amalgamation of means and ends, because it makes for a new aim, clearly shifts the original desire still further from its natural base. The fact that the straight expression of desire is hindered, not by want of objects but by increasing scrupulosity concerning means, makes contemplation possible, and this contemplation discovers what the object is, beyond its mere utility. There is an accompanying rise in value as well as an altered attitude and a changed emotion. Standards, at the same time, make their appearance, for before the only measurements were speed, economy, and success. Now, in addition, there are all those added forms and ceremonies, and judgment frequently turns on them: this gesture has not been made, that rite has been ignored; this sauce employs poor brandy, that caress is crude. (Gass; 200)
Gass is talking chiefly about the refinements of civilization, of course, but it should not be difficult to see how the process he describes relates to the elaborations of rituals and the construction of complex taboos, the beginnings of which had been lost in the mists of time and must now be reconstructed.

Moving back to Chris Knight. His work is exciting to me, because it offers a scientific basis for believing that an egalitarian society need not be just utopian fantasies in the minds of leftists. The idea that egalitarianism--an egalitarianism in which women played the central role--formed the basis for the existence of our very culture, is inspiring. I link this explicitly with my readings into the origins of and opposition to capitalism, and the various revolutionary moments in human history. As does Knight. As noted earlier, he emphasizes that his theory falls within the tradition of Marxist anthropology. This is important: the working class's ability and need to act in solidarity parallels the original solidarity of women. The sex-strikes forced men to act on terms established by women, who effectively liberated sexuality from its basic reproductive function. Knight writes:
When sex is used not just reproductively but politically--as a way of negotiating one's way through a conflict-ridden political landscape, or as a way of acquiring privileges or food--then this results in selection pressures placing sex increasingly under cortical rather than hormonal control. (Knight; 532)
This may sound uncomfortably akin to prostitution, and Knight notes the evident paradox that "human morality was prepared by prostitution", but he reminds us of Marx's description of capitalism as "the prostitution of labour", and concludes:
Capitalism, as the most developed system of universal labour prostitution there as has ever been, is within this paradigm only a dialectical 'return', on a higher plane, to the competitive sexual systems and forms of dominance of pre-cultural humans and of the higher primates. It is this which makes the future revolution the same as the human one: in both epochs, in modern times as in the paleolithic, the struggle for humanity is directed against the same kind of thing. (Knight; 533)
In recent years, Noam Chomsky has often closed his speeches or writings by stating that the very survival of the species may depend on the ability of people to stop the United States and the capitalist class from pursuing their single-minded and destructive goals. Knight ends Blood Relations on a similar theme, but with an admixture of hope:
As we fight to become free, it is as if we were becoming human for the first time in our lives. But in this sense, because it concerns becoming human, the birth process we have got to win [. . .] has in the deepest sense been won already. None of us would be here had it not been. To understand this may be to understand, and thereby to make ourselves the instruments of, the real strength of our cause and the inevitability of our emancipation as women, as workers and as a species.
I recommend Blood Relations to anyone interested in evolutionary science and cultural anthropology, certainly, but also anyone looking for inspiration in the continual struggle for freedom.


Dorothy W. said...

Very interesting post. I shall keep my eye out for Blood Relations, as well as for the writings of Gass.

Mark Thwaite said...

Great post Richard.

I'm so glad that the Chris Knight interview on ReadySteadyBook not only piqued your interest, but offered you such a substantial intellectual feed!

bdr said...

Just walked cross campus to stacks and borrowed book. Thanks!