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The Origins of Patriarchy (Part One)
For all except the last 13,000 of the 300,000 years of our existence as a species, we human beings have tended to organize ourselves in small communities, of under fifty people, in which men and women do different tasks.. We’ve done so mostly because of how we get born. During long pregnancies, our mothers were less able to defend themselves. This meant that men were the ones who ventured out to hunt, while women gathered food or did domestic work, including childcare, in or near villages or camps.
These two kinds of work required different abilities. Men had to exert short bursts of physical strength to run down, attack, and kill their prey, and the hunt was violent and dangerous. It favored those who were strong, fast, and decisive. It favored strategic and tactical intelligence, and promoted the ability to plan, and to adapt plans quickly to changing circumstances.
Gathering food, domestic work, pregnancy, labor, giving birth, and childcare required a different kind of strength and intelligence. They required the endurance to stick with tasks for a long time, even when they were exhausting and painful. Women did this domestic work with or around other women and around children. In a village or camp, collaboration was not a means to an end, as it was in hunting; collaboration was how people lived in community; without collaboration there was no community and thus no life. Domestic work, then, favored those who were skilled in maintaining interpersonal and social relationships, including preventing and resolving conflicts before they became violent.
Men and women display both kinds of strength (bursts and endurance) and intelligence (strategic and relational). Most men, though, for almost all of the history of the species, have been hunters, and most women have been gatherers and have cared for children. This has resulted in measurable differences between the sexes.
Men tend to be physically bigger, stronger, and faster than women. They tend to focus on objects and to develop the ability to use objects to achieve ends more quickly than do women. Women tend to focus on interpersonal relationships and to develop language and interactive skills more quickly than do men.
While differences in the kinds of strength between men and women are genetically encoded, differences in kinds of intelligence may or may not be. Even if the differences in intelligence prove to be genetically encoded, research shows four things.
• The distribution of different levels of strategic and interpersonal intelligence forms a bell curve for each gender—in other words, some women are better than most men at strategic thinking, and some men are better than most women at maintaining interpersonal relationships.
• Social conditioning decisively shapes individual development of these kinds of intelligence, even shaping the physical growth of nerves. This conditioning begins at birth. Adults direct and reward boy babies’ greater focus on objects and girl babies’ greater focus on faces. These differences in social conditioning result in measurable differences in the nerves and areas of the brain governing these different foci.
• Third, no matter what humans’ or primates’ genetic endowment and individual history, the conditioning exerted by natural and social environments decisively shapes how individuals in communities behave.
• Fourth, even in primate and human communities in which genetics, social conditioning, and social and natural environments lead to a predominance of one kind of behavior, individuals and the communities can and sometimes do learn to favor different patterns.
Crises favor the kinds of strength and intelligence associated with hunting. Fleeing a natural disaster or fighting a band of attackers requires strength, speed, and strategic thinking. In such situations, people tend to follow and rely upon those who are physically strong and strategically intelligent. These leaders are usually males.
Environmental conditions that repeatedly threaten the survival of a community create more frequent natural and social crises. For instance, for a hunting-gathering community, a chronic shortage of food created the need to expand or move the area in which a band hunted and gathered. Such expansions and moves created potential conflicts as one band moved into another’s territory. Especially if the second band was also short of food, it tended to view the first band’s incursion as a threat and responded by attacking it, creating a crisis.
Repeated and frequent crises affect the social organization of communities. Anthropological and archeological evidence indicates that, when there were not repeated and frequent crises, hunting-gathering communities tended to organize around groups of related females. In these communities, the egalitarian collaboration that characterized everyday life in villages and camps was the norm.
Repeated and frequent crises tended to result in organization around strong and strategically intelligent males not only during the crises, but also at other times. This hierarchical organization tended to exist side by side with, be overlaid on, and to intertwine with the egalitarian one. Thus, for instance, in villages, most casual everyday encounters were egalitarian, but people made formal decisions affecting the whole tribe only in meetings ruled over by a male leader and in which elite males exercised more power than do females.
Hierarchy—organization around leaders—thus began as patriarchy, or organization around male elites in situations of chronic stress. Patriarchy organized communities around those males who were most prone to identify situations as crises and to respond by leading their communities to flee or to fight. Archaeological, anthropological, and ethological research shows that the more patriarchal a society was and is, the more prone to violence it is.
This article is the first of a five-part series on the origins of patriarchy. Roy SteinhoffSmith is an independent scholar of and writer about religion.