A critical factor in the formation of complex societies was the division of the population into a hierarchy of groups. Agricultural and industrial societies have been built on hierarchies of class, race, ethnicity, and gender. Why was it impossible to create a just and equal society? What is the deep root of prejudice and injustice? In particular, why did almost all known societies treat men as superior to women? These are the questions that Dr. Yuval Noah Harari attempts to answer in the seventh week of the courser course A Brief History of Humankind. This lecture is the last part of section two, The Agricultural Revolution.
These are my course notes from the coursera course – A Brief History of Humankind by Dr. Harari of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Hierarchy and Organisations
Understanding human history in the millennia following the Agricultural Revolution basically boils down to a single question. How did humans organize themselves in mass corporation networks, when they lacked the biological instincts necessary to sustain such networks? The short answer is that humans created imagined orders and invented writing which filled the gaps left by our biological inheritance. We will exam the impact of the new mass corporation networks on life and relationships between humans.
The appearance of these mass corporation networks was for many individuals a very dubious blessing. The imagined order that sustained them was neither neutral nor fair. They divided people into imaginary groups and arranged these groups in a hierarchy. The upper levels enjoyed privileges, power and wealth, whereas the low ranking ones suffered from discrimination and depression. The Code of Hammurabi for example, established a clear hierarchy of superiors, commoners, and slaves. Superior people got all the good things in life, commoners got whatever was left and slaves got nothing. All known complex societies have been divided into such hierarchies. In some places and eras, people were divided according to caste, in others according to race or religion or wealth. Often several such divisions were employed at once. For example, in the modern United States, people are divided and treated according to their race, religion, gender, and wealth simultaneously. The status, of a rich, black, Muslim woman is different from the status of a rich, black, Christian woman or that of a poor, white Jewish man. Whatever divisions a particular society employs, the basic principle always remains the same. It classifies people into different categories and people are treated according to the category into which they are placed. There is no need to know who they are and their abilities or personalities are.
In traditional Hindu society if you are going to marry the first and most important thing about your potential spouse is which caste they belong to. This is far more important than their personality or habits. People who believe in the particular hierarchy of groups, like the caste system in India will always tend to claim that the hierarchy is natural and inevitable; it simply reflects the way things are in the world. Racists, for example, argue that there are real biological differences between Africans, Europeans, Chinese and Aboriginal Australians.
Hindu’s, who adhere to the traditional caste system, similarly believe that cosmic forces are responsible for the division of the castes. According to a very famous Hindu creation myth, the gods fashioned the world out of the body of a primeval mythological being the Purusha. According to this story, the sun was created from the eye of the Purusha. The moon was created from his brain, the Brahmins, the priests, the highest caste were created from his mouth. Kshatriyas the warrior class were created from the arms of the Purusha and The Vaisyas, peasants and merchants from his thigh. The Shudras, servants and slaves who do all the dirty works were created from the legs. According to this story socio-political differences between Brahmins, Shudras, Vaishyas, and so forth are natural and eternal just like the differences between the sun and the moon.
The ancient Chinese believed that when the creator goddess Nüwa created humans from earth she created aristocrats from fine, good, yellow soil whereas commoners were formed from brown mud and this is why they aren’t as good. Today capitalists believe that the hierarchy of wealth reflects real differences in the ability and qualities of people. Many of them believe that the rich have more money and privileges because they are more intelligent and hard working. Capitalists believe it is fine if the rich get better health care, better education and better nutrition because they have earned it, it reflects their superior abilities. However, to the best of our understanding today these hierarchies are all the product of human imagination and human stories that don’t reflect any natural order. Brahmins and Shudras in Ancient India, for example, it’s not true that they were created by the gods from different body parts of a Purushka, the distinction was created by laws and norms that people who lived in northern India three thousand years ago invented.
Between blacks and whites are some objective and biological differences such as skin colour and hair type which we can see, but there is no evidence that the differences between the races extend to intelligence or morality as racists argue. Most people today are taught to be outraged by the idea of a racial hierarchy of people and laws that prohibit blacks to live in white neighbourhoods, or to be treated in white hospitals. The hierarchy of rich and poor that causes rich people to live in separate and more luxurious neighbourhoods, to study at separate and better schools, to receive medical treatment in separate and better hospitals seems perfectly normal to many of us today in the world. Yet it is a proven fact that most rich people are rich because they are born into a rich family, not because they have some superior skills. Most poor people will remain poor throughout their lives because they were unfortunate enough to be born into a poor family. It doesn’t really reflect their abilities and, and characters.
As far as we can tell, all the different methods by which societies in history classified people into a hierarchy of groups have been based on imaginary stories. They do not reflect objective reality. Unfortunately, complex human societies seem to require such imagined hierarchies and such unjust discrimination. Not all hierarchies are morally identical. Some societies suffered for more extreme types of discrimination than other societies. Yet scholars do not know about any complex society anywhere in history that was able to organize and maintain itself without some kind of imagined hierarchy and some kind of discrimination. This is because all these imagined classifications and hierarchies serve an important social function. They enable complete strangers to know how to treat one another without wasting time and energy needed to become personally acquainted. For instance how does a teacher decide who to accept as students? An 18th century Jewish rabbi would only accept Jewish men. A guru in a traditional Hindu community would only accept men from the Brahmin caste. A prestigious, private American university today only accepts rich people because only they can pay the tuition fees.
In order to simply walk down the street we need the help of these imagined groupings and hierarchy because we live in cities, of millions of people and we have to know how to treat all the strangers we meet without really knowing them. We have visual clues about how to treat them. We treat people differently due to the way they are dressed. We treat men and women differently. We sometimes treat people with different religious symbols about them differently.
Differences in natural abilities also play some role in the formation of social distinctions but they are usually mediated through the imagined hierarchies of our society. This happens in two important ways. Firstly most of people’s abilities have to be nurtured and developed. Even if somebody is born with a particular talent like playing football, or doing business, that talent will usually remain latent if it is not fostered, honed and exercised. Not all people in a particular society get the same chance to cultivate and exercise their abilities. Whether or not they have an opportunity to do so will usually depend on their place within the imagined hierarchy of that society. People who are born into a rich family in the United States or Australia who have a latent capacity to do business have a much greater chance of developing this latent capacity. Their family can send them to business school. If they are born into a poor family which can’t even finance them through high school and they have to work in a factory to support the family then they have very limited chances.
Secondly, even if people from different classes somehow develop exactly the same abilities they are still unlikely to enjoy equal chances of success because they will have to play the game by different rules. Let’s take an example from the time of the British rule over India. If an untouchable from the lowest segment of Indian society, a Brahmin, the highest caste of Indian society, a Protestant Englishman and a Catholic Irishman in India in the 19th century somehow managed to develop exactly the same business skills they wouldn’t have the same chance of being successful business people and becoming rich. The economic game was rigged by legal restrictions, norms and unofficial glass ceilings in favour of Hindu Brahmins and Protestant English men and against untouchables and Irish Catholics. We see then that all societies are based to a larger or smaller degree on these imagined hierarchies, but not necessarily on the same hierarchy
In most cases the hierarchy that dominates in a particular society originated as a result of some accidental historical circumstances, and was then simply perpetuated over many, many generations.
The Hindu caste system.
Many scholars believe that the Hindu caste system took shape for the first time when people from Central Asia invaded the Indian subcontinent about 3,000 years ago and subjugated the local population. The invaders, from Central Asia, established a stratified society in which they naturally occupied the leading positions of priests, warriors and merchants. The natives were left with the less privileged positions of servants, peasants and slaves.
The invaders were much fewer in number than the local population and they feared that over time they might lose their unique identity and their privileged status. To prevent this, they divided the population into castes. Each caste was required to perform a specific role in society and had different legal status, different privileges, and different duties. Mixing of castes, whether by social interaction, marriage or even sharing bills was prohibited in order to preserve this distinction of castes. The distinctions and prohibitions were not just legal theory but became an integral part of Hindu religion, mythology, and practice.
To give legitimacy to this social system of caste stratification, the ruling elite tried to convince everybody, including itself, that it was not a human invention meant to safeguard the privileges of the invaders, but that it reflected some kind of cosmic order and that its purpose was to protect society against impurity.
This idea was not unique to the ancient Hindus; we see it again and again throughout history. When people try to establish and maintain social segregation, social distinctions between people they very often do so by arguing that a particular group of people is impure. Contact or mixing between different kinds of people may lead to impurity. In many religions and societies, we find for example, ideas that women are a source of pollution and therefore they shouldn’t go near the Holy Scriptures, or they shouldn’t mix with men, or they shouldn’t do this or that.
Similarly, other groups like Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, and so forth whenever people want to keep them out of somewhere, they say that these people are impure and that mixing with them is a source of impurity. This is the justification given, at least at some level, to the social distinction.
This idea is very powerful because it is actually rooted in biological reality. People have been given by a long evolutionary process a fear of polluting themselves by coming into contact with things that might cause them diseases, like dead bodies, rotten corpses, or bad food. So these were the original impure things, they were things that really caused disease, and that may really result in great harm to society. Different religions and social systems hijacked these biological mechanisms of developing disgust towards something and turned it against certain groups of people. They educated people from a very early age that if you come into contact with this particular kind of person it may pollute you. This was at least one of the bases for the formation of the Hindu caste system.
The Hindu caste system and the ideas about purity and impurity became deeply embedded within Indian culture. Long after the invasion was completely forgotten, nobody remembered that thousands of years ago these people came from Central Asia and started the whole thing. Indians still continued to believe in the caste system and to be fearful of pollution caused by caste mixing.
The caste system did not stay exactly the same for 3,000 years but changed over time. For example at the beginning there were four very large castes, but over the centuries they were divided into sub-castes, and new castes were added.Eventually the Hindu caste system included not four, but about 3,000 different castes or groupings which are called jāti. Jāti means birth as caste was determined by birth. These changes did not change the basic principal of the system which said that every person is born into a particular jāti, into a particular caste, and any infringement on the rules of your caste will pollute you and society in general. A person’s jāti determined their profession, where they could work, what they could do, what kind of food they should eat, where they should live, and whom they could marry. A person could marry only within his or her caste or jāti. The resulting children inevitably inherited the caste of their parents.
Even today in the early 21st century, 3,000 years after the invasion from Central Asia matters of marriage and career in modern India are still heavily influenced by the caste system, despite all the attempts that India’s democratic government has made to break down distinctions between castes and to convince Hindus that there is nothing polluting in caste mixing. There has been a lot of progress in this respect over the last few decades, but caste is still extremely important today in India.
Slaves in America
A similar historical process accounts for the racial distinctions that came to dominate modern American society. The story of race in America has many similarities with the story of caste in India. As in India it started with a chance historical event that of the European invasion and conquest of America in the early modern period. More importantly the importation by the European conquerors of millions of African slaves to work in the mines and plantations of America.
An important point to understand is why Europeans who conquered America chose to import slaves from Africa rather than employing the local Indians or importing slave workers from Europe, or from East Asia, or elsewhere. There are several reasons behind it all of them are quite accidental. Firstly Europeans brought with them a lot of unfamiliar illnesses and diseases to America. The Indians died in millions. More than 90% of the population of the Americas died within a century of the arrival of Europeans because they had no immunity against these new diseases. There were not enough Indians to work the plantations.
Secondly Africa is closer to America than China or Vietnam so it was cheaper to import slaves from Senegal than from Vietnam as Senegal is closer to Brazil than Vietnam. Another reason to import slaves from Africa is that in Africa, there already existed a very well-developed slave trade. Mainly Muslim slave traders from North Africa and the Middle East had developed in the previous centuries a lively trade in African slaves which were exported from Central Africa to North Africa and the Middle East. When Europeans started wanting to import slaves, it was much easier to use an existing market and buy the slaves and send them to America, than to create a completely new slave market from scratch.
The third, and perhaps most important reason to import African slaves, is that American plantations of sugar, cotton, and coffee, were mostly located in tropical areas of America such as Haiti, Brazil, Louisiana, and Virginia. These tropical areas were plagued by tropical disease such as malaria and yellow fever which had originated in Africa. Columbus and the others arriving in the late 15th and early 16th century brought with them diseases which originated in tropical Africa, and these spread throughout tropical America. Europeans did not have immunity against these tropical diseases because they are not common in Europe. Africans, on the other hand had acquired, over the generations, at least partial immunity to them. Europeans died in droves whereas Africans had a much better chance of surviving. A plantation owner in Louisiana, Cuba, or Brazil invested in African slaves who were already resistant to malaria and yellow fever rather than buying an Irish slave who would die within six months. Paradoxically the biological superiority of Africans caused them to become socially inferior, because they were more fit than Europeans to live in the tropical climates, Africans ended up as the slaves of European masters who preferred to import the slaves from Africa and not from Ireland or Russia or somewhere else.
Due to these very accidental factors, the new colonial societies of America came to be divided into a ruling class of white Europeans, and a subjugated group of black Africans. In order to justify this kind of arrangement, the European masters invented stories. They didn’t say we have African slaves because of the reasons above as this does not sound just. They had to come up with some better stories. One story which European theologians told was that Africans descended from Ham, son of the biblical Noah. Ham was cursed by his father Noah that his offspring would be slaves so this is why it’s okay to enslave Africans. This was a theological argument. This was in the modern age, so there was already modern science. Modern biologists argued that it’s okay to enslave black Africans because according to the science of biology, blacks are less intelligent than whites and have impaired moral senses. There were also medical theories. Doctors argued that blacks spread diseases and lived in worse hygienic conditions, they are a source of pollution and therefore they should be kept apart from whites.
These stories became a cornerstone of the racial ideology that spread, not only in America, but also in Europe. The stories continued to be important to exert influence long after the conditions that created slavery in the first place disappeared, just as happened in India. Nobody remembered the initial conditions of the invasion from Central Asia, but everybody continued to believe in caste. In America, people no longer remembered the conditions of the 16th century, and the reasons for the initial formation of the racial system, but they continued to believe in racial segregation. In the early 19th century slavery was outlawed, firstly by Imperial Britain. The British Empire outlawed slavery and stopped the Atlantic slave trade. In the following decades more and more slave-owning societies in America abolished and outlawed slavery. This was perhaps the first and only time in history that a slave holding society voluntarily abolished slavery. Even though they abolished slavery, even though the slaves now were free in America, the racist stories, the racist mythology that justified slavery persisted. Separation of the races was maintained by racist ideologies and stories, and by the social customs that they that they lead to.
In the Southern United States immediately after the American Civil War ended in 1865, all the slaves in the Southern states became legally free and equal citizens to white European Americans. However, two centuries of slavery meant that most black families were much poorer and far less educated that most white families. A black African American born in Alabama in 1865 had a much smaller chance of getting a good education and of getting a well-paid job than his white European Americans neighbours. The children of this person, born in the 1880’s or 1890’s also began their lives with the same disadvantages. They also were born to uneducated and poor parents. This was one kind of vicious circle that continued to work even after the abolition of slavery.
It was not just economic disadvantage that kept the separation of the races. If the only difference after 1865 between blacks and whites was money and education, then with time, the sharp divide between the races should have been more and more blurred, not least through intermarriage. In 1865, there were many poor whites as well as blacks. But the separation remained even in the lower echelons of society between African Americans and European Americans. We did not see a merger of the two populations into a single population. By 1865 after centuries of slavery and racial ideology most whites and even quite a few of the blacks took it as a simple matter of fact that blacks people originated from Africa were less intelligent, were more violent, lazier, and were less concerned about personal hygiene than whites. These were the stories that had circulated for centuries to justify slavery and people continued to believe in them. Blacks were thought to be the agents of violence, theft, disease and crime, in other words a source of pollution.
This idea of pollution or fear of pollution was the basis for a lot of social distinctions. If an African American in Alabama in 1895 somehow miraculously managed to get a good education and then applied to get a good job, like being a bank teller his odds of being accepted for this job were far worse than those of an equally qualified white candidate. No bank manager would like to employ somebody who is unreliable and lazy and full of diseases. This is what people thought about African Americans. You might think that over the years people would gradually understand that all these stories and all these stigmas are just vicious mythology, that there is no truth in them, but as happened in Hindu society, so also in America, the situation was just the opposite. The prejudices became more and more powerful, more and more entrenched as time went by. Even after the abolition of slavery all the best jobs were kept by whites because nobody wanted to employ African Americans. Over time it became even easier to believe that blacks were really inferior to whites. Many white citizens would say something like, look blacks have been freed for generations now, for decades, yet when you look around, you don’t see any black professors, any black lawyers or doctors or even bank tellers, so this is proof that blacks are really less intelligent and less hard working than whites. This again created a vicious circle. As the anti-black stigma grew stronger and stronger it was translated into a system of laws and norms, that were meant to safeguard the racial order and the segregation of the races.
In exactly the same way as happened in ancient India, blacks in the late 19th and early 20th century, in the Southern United States were prevented from voting in elections, forbidden to study in white schools, forbidden to shop in white owned stores, forbidden to eat in white restaurants or to sleep in white hotels, and so on. Justification for these prohibitions was that blacks were dirty, lazy and dangerous, so whites had to be protected from them. They had to be protected from being polluted. The justification to prevent blacks from voting in the democratic elections was that blacks are ignorant and they are not as smart as whites, they should not pollute the political system. In this way by the mid-20th century segregation in the Southern United States was probably worse than it was in the late 19th century. With time these anti-black stigmas spread to more and more cultural arenas. American aesthetic culture, for example, embraced a standard beauty built around white qualities. The physical attributes of the white race, light skin, straight light hair, and a small upturned nose came to be identified in American society as a whole as beautiful. The typical features of blacks, like having dark skin, dark and bushy hair, and a flattened nose, these were increasingly seen as ugly. This vicious circle which originated in just a chance event perpetuated itself and became more and more deeply embedded.
Things eventually began to change in the 1950s and 1960s, and over the last few decades there have been immense efforts to overcome racial prejudices and distinctions in American society and politics. Despite these efforts the gap between African Americans and European Americans, although smaller than it was 60 years ago, is still very significant. Perpetuating an imagined hierarchy that initially was the result of just chance historical events, not some fundamental reality of the universe, perpetuates the vicious circle.
One of the sad truths about history is that over time, unjust discrimination against a particular group of people often gets worse, not better. Money, very often comes to money, and poverty comes to poverty. Just if your parents were poor, you are likely to be even poorer than your parents. Education very often comes to education. If your parents had a BA, you’re more likely to have a Ph.D. If your parents did not have a BA, you’re more likely not to have even a high school degree. Most socio-political hierarchies in human history lack any objective biological or logical basis. They are nothing but a perpetuation of accidental events which are supported by imagined stories that people invented over time. If the division between African Americans and European Americans in modern America, or the distinction between Brahmins and Shudras in Hindu society were grounded in an objective biological reality then in order to understand society and social distinctions you need only to know biology. Because the biological distinctions between different groups of Homo sapiens are, as far as we know today negligible, biology cannot really explain the dynamics of Indian society or of the racial system in America. We can only understand these phenomena by studying the events, the circumstances, and the power relations that over time transformed the imagination of people into very real and very cruel social structures.
Of supreme importance in almost all known human societies is the hierarchy of gender. People everywhere and at all times have divided themselves into men and women. This distinction gave men a superior position in society to women. In many societies throughout history, women were simply considered to be the property of men most often, the property of their fathers, their husbands, their brothers, or the male community in general. The most extreme, but common, manifestation of this is that in many legal systems throughout history the rape of a woman was considered the violation of property. The victim of rape was, according to the legal system, the man, who owned her and now owned defective property.
Take, for example, what the Bible has to say about rape in Deuteronomy chapter 22, verses 28 to 29. That if a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed to anybody and seizes her and lies with her and they are found then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman 50 silver shekels and she shall be his wife. In this case according to the laws of the Hebrew Bible, once the rapist compensated the owner of the damaged property, the father, for the damage being done, he, the rapist, was now given full possession of the raped woman. The ancient Hebrews considered this to be a very reasonable and just arrangement. It is telling that according to most legal systems in history if a husband raped his own wife, this was not considered a crime at all. In fact, according to most legal systems in history, the idea, the notion that a husband could rape his wife was a logical contradiction, because to be a husband meant to have full control of your wife’s sexuality. To say that a husband raped his wife was as illogical as saying that a man stole his own wallet. Such thinking was not confined to some ancient Middle Eastern people. As recently as 2006, there were still 53 countries (about a quarter of the countries in the world) where a husband could not be persecuted in court for the rape of his wife. Even in Germany, the heart of Europe, rape laws were amended only in 1997 to create the legal category of marital rape. Previously you could not prosecute a German husband for raping his wife because it was not a crime.
At least some of the cultural, legal, and political differences between men and women reflect biological differences between the sexes and they are not just pure imagination. Child bearing, for example, has been considered a woman’s job in all human societies in history, for the simple reason that men don’t have wombs. It’s not just figment of imagination, child bearing is the job of women. However, around this kind of hard kernel of universal biological differences every society that we know of in history, managed to accumulate many cultural ideas and norms that have very little to do with biology. Societies associate a host of qualities and tasks and duties with masculinity and with femininity and for the most part they lack a firm biological basis. For instance 2,500 years ago in democratic Athens in the fifth century BC, the cradle of democracy, women could not vote for any of the offices. They also could not be elected for any of the offices of the state. The ancient Athenians thought it was natural to exclude women from politics. They thought that women didn’t have the necessary intelligence or moral standards to do such things. The ancient Athenians thought that there was something about the nature, the biology of women that prevented them
from fulfilling these, tasks. Today, most people, at least in the developed world, think that this is nonsense. There is nothing in the biology of the female body or of the female brain that should prevent women from participating in elections, either as voters or as candidates.
In many societies today around the world, including modern Greece, it is common to argue that men should not have sex with other men. If you ask modern Greeks about it, many of them would, would say that men should not do it because it is unnatural; it is somehow, against their nature. There is nothing in the male body or in the male brain that prevents men from having and enjoying sex with one another and there are many cultures in human history, most notably ancient Greece, in which homosexuality and pederasty was not only pretty common but it was also normative and legal. All societies have notions about what is natural and what is unnatural for men and women to do. Some have a basis in biology like the idea that child bearing is the job of women but most do not.
Biology or Myth?
A good rule of thumb to distinguish between biological and myth is that biology enables, culture forbids. Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities of different behaviour. Culture obliges people to realize some of the possibilities that biology opens up while forbidding others. Biology gives us many possibilities and those we realize or not is very often dictated by culture. For example, biology enables rather than forces women to have children. Some cultures, however, oblige women to realize this possibility by saying that women who don’t have children are not really women, or they are doing something unnatural. Similarly, biology enables rather than forces men to enjoy sex with one another. Some cultures forbid men from realizing this particular possibility.
Whenever cultures forbid or force people to do something, they tend to argue that they forbid only what is unnatural. From a biological perspective there is nothing we can do which is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural according to biology. Truly unnatural behaviour that goes against the laws of nature simply cannot exist. It is completely unnecessary to prohibit unnatural activities because they cannot exist. No culture ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesise because people can’t do it. It’s unnatural for men to photosynthesise from solar energy. Similarly, it’s unnatural for women to run faster than the speed of light, because it goes against the laws of physics. No culture, not even the Bible forbade women to run faster than the speed of light. No culture ever forbade negatively charged electrons from being attracted to each other. Our concepts of natural and unnatural have nothing to do with biology and are not taken from biology. They are taken from Christian theology and from monotheist theology in general from a Bible.
The theological meaning of natural, (which is very different from the biological meaning of the word) is something which is in accordance with the intentions of God who created nature. According to Christian theology, it was God who created the human body and in creating the human body God intended that the limbs and organs of the body serve a particular purpose. According to Christian theology, if we use our limbs and organs, our womb and our sexual organs, and our mouth and so on for the purpose that God envisioned when he created them, then this is natural. If we use them in a different way this is unnatural. This is theology and this just a story that people invented. According to the science of biology the human body was not created by an omnipotent God. The human body was shaped by evolutionary processes and evolution has no purposes. When evolution creates an organ through natural selection, it has no intentions and purposes. None of the organs in our body evolved to fulfil just one particular purpose. There is not a single organ or body part in the, in the human body which is used for the same purposes and aims for which its prototype, millions or even hundreds of millions of years ago in evolution, was used. Take hands, for example, our hands and feet, and the hands and legs of all mammals initially evolved from the fins of fish. The original purpose of hands and legs were to swim. All humans and all mammals could be accused of being unnatural because they use their hands and legs in order to walk and climb, instead of to swim in the ocean.
This line of reasoning also applies to our sexual organs and to our, sexual behaviour. Sex first evolved for procreation. Courtship rituals evolved initially as a way of examining the fitness of a potential mate. However, over millions of years of evolution, many animals came to use both sex and courtship rituals for a multitude of social purposes that have very little to do with having babies. Chimpanzees, or chimpanzee cousins, for example use sex in order to cement political alliances, in order to establish intimacy, and in order to diffuse tensions between individuals in the band. Much of the sexual activity in chimpanzee bands doesn’t result in the birth of little chimpanzees. This is one of the uses to which chimpanzees can put the sexual organs in their body and what’s true of chimpanzees is also true of humans.
Sex and Gender
There is little sense in arguing that the natural function of women is to give birth or that homosexuality is unnatural. Biology gave, women the ability to have babies and gave men the ability to have homosexual sex. Whether they use it or not and for what purposes exactly is mainly up to culture to decide from within all the possibilities that biology gave us. Most of the laws, the norms the rights and obligations that define manhood and womanhood in different societies reflect human imagination and not biological reality. To make things clearer, scholars usually distinguish between two different terms, sex which is a biological category, and gender, which is a cultural category. Sex is the division between males and females the qualities of this division are objective based on biological reality and they have remained fairly constant throughout history. To be a male in ancient Greece, was exactly the same as being a male in modern Greece. All you need to do in order to be a male in ancient or modern Greece is to have XY chromosomes and there you are. On the biological level, there is little difference between males in ancient Greece and males today.
Gender is something very different from sex. Gender is divided not between males and females but between men and woman. If you want to be a man for example then just having XY chromosomes is not enough. In order to be a man, instead of just being a male, you also need to behave in a certain way that your society decides to work in certain jobs and not others, to dress in a certain way and not in other ways. How you need to behave and to talk and to dress in order to be considered as a man, is determined by human culture and this has changed throughout history. This is what scholars call masculinity and it changes, a lot, from one culture to the other culture.
Look, for example, at the picture on the right. It is an official portrait of King Louis the Fourteenth King of France. Note, for example, that he has a long wig, he wears stockings, he wears high heel shoes and he stands in some kind of dancer’s posture. He also sports a very, very big sword. Now today in Europe or America all these features, the wig and the stockings and the high heels, except for the sword all these features would be considered feminine not masculine. In the time of Louis the Fourteenth around the year 1700 it was customary for upper class men to dress like this and Louis was considered a paragon of manhood and virility. This was masculinity 300 years ago.
The picture on the left shows twenty-first century masculinity. It is an official portrait of President Barrack Obama, of the United States. We we are used to seeing men like this today. We are used to thinking that this is the masculine way of dressing. We think it is natural for men to look like Barrack Obama, to dress like this, but it isn’t natural. In fact, the way that men look in modern, western society, is very strange. Men never looked so grey and dull and dreary as they look in modern western society. For most of history, in most cultures, men particularly, very powerful men like the chiefs and kings have always been very colourful, very flamboyant in the way that they dress and stand and look. American Indian chiefs wore feathers in their hair or Hindu Maharajahs, were always dressed in silks, diamonds and furs. In the animal kingdom males tend to be much more colourful than females. The female peacock, for example, the peahen is very dull and grey, the peacock looks amazing. The male lion looks far more colourful and impressive than the female lioness. In the modern west, real men wear only very simple, grey clothes, and don’t ever use make-up and things like that; it’s a cultural norm not a biological imperative. This then is the essential difference between sex and gender.
To be a member of the male sex is the simplest thing in the world. All you need is to be born with an x chromosome and a y chromosome, and there you are. To be a female is equally simple, you need to be born with a pair of X chromosomes. Gender is much more complicated. To be a man or a woman is very difficult and demanding undertaking. Most of the masculine and feminine qualities are cultural and not biological. No society automatically considers every male to be a real man, and every female to be a real woman. Females spend enormous amounts of time and energy each day just to convince everybody around them that they are feminine enough, that they behave according and dress and look according to the present day ideal of femininity. Similarly, males spend much of their lives engaged in all kinds of dramas and conflicts and competitions, just in order to prove that they are real men. Success is not guaranteed. Both females and males may fail to win a claim as real men and real women.
Males in particular live in constant fear of losing their claim to manhood. Throughout human history males have been willing to risk and even to sacrifice their lives, just so that people would say about them he is a real man. This is very important because at least since the agricultural revolution to be a real man meant to have a lot of privileges, which were withheld from less successful males, and also from all the females and all the women. No matter how a society defined what it is to be a real man, and what it is to be a woman, to be a man was always better.
This is what scholars mean when they speak about patriarchal societies or patriarchy. A patriarchal society is a society that values what it sees as masculine qualities more than it values what it considers to be feminine qualities. Patriarchal societies don’t educate everybody to behave in a masculine way. They educate males to be men; to think and act in a masculine way. But women are expected to think, act and dress in a feminine way, and anyone who tries to change it will be punished. Anyone who tries to cross the boundaries between the genders will be punished. After forcing males to behave like men and females to behave like women patriarchal societies do not reward them equally. It rewards successful men with much more power and many more privileges than it rewards successful women. With very few exceptions all known human societies in history, at least since the agricultural revolution, were patriarchal societies. Almost all known human societies gave men political, economic and legal privileges and discriminated against women.
Patriarchy is so universal, we have only very few exceptions to it. It cannot be the product of some chance vicious circle like the caste division in India or like the racial division in America. It cannot be explained in the same way that we have explained those historical phenomenons. It is particularly noteworthy that even before 1492 when Columbus reached America and united the old world and the new world into a single circular unit societies in America were mostly as patriarchal as the societies in Europe and Asia. They’d had no contact yet they were both patriarchal, so it’s not reasonable to think that patriarchy around the world resulted from some chance occurrence. Patriarchy is so universal that it is far more likely that, even though the precise definition of what a man is and what a woman is varies between different cultures, there is some universal biological reason why almost all cultures valued manhood more than they valued womanhood and valued masculine qualities more than feminine qualities.
Almost all known human societies were patriarchal and divided humans into men and women, and privileged men over women. Because this is such a universal phenomenon, it probably results from a universal biological reason, and not from a chance historical event. We don’t know what the biological reason is but there are plenty of theories about it. None of the theories is completely convincing. In this segment Dr Harari went over the most common theories, explained them, examined them and also explained the problems and shortcomings.
The most common theory to explain the patriarchal system, points out that men are physically stronger than women and that men have used this to force women into submission. A more subtle version of this same theory argues that the strength of men allowed them to, or even necessitated that they monopolize certain economic tasks that demand hard manual labour, like ploughing the fields and harvesting crops. This gave men control of food production and the economy, which in turned translated into political power.
This is a very common theory, but there are two big problems with this emphasis on physical power. Firstly the statement that men are stronger than women is true only on average and also only with regard to certain types of strength. Women often have greater stamina than men and are generally more resistant to hunger, disease, and fatigue than men. So, it’s not completely accurate to say men are stronger than women, we should qualify this statement.
Secondly, and more importantly, there is no direct relation between physical strength and social power among humans. For example older people in or around their 60’s usually have much more political power than people in their 20’s, even though younger people are much stronger, physically, than their elders. Another example is slavery. A cotton plantation in Mississippi, in the 19th century would have slaves working in the fields who were much stronger, physically, than the owner of the plantation. Physical power by itself does not necessarily translate into social and political superiority.
Many leaders throughout history, such as, catholic popes or Egyptian Pharaohs did not attain their position just by using brute, physical strength. In forager societies, political dominance generally resided with the person who had the best social skills not with the person who had the most powerful muscles.
In organized crime among violent criminals the big boss of the Mafia is not necessarily the strongest man. The big boss is often an older man who rarely uses his own fists to beat up anybody. What he knows how to do is to get younger and stronger men to do all the dirty jobs like killing somebody else. He can’t be displaced by beating him up his adversary usually won’t live long enough to realize what a big mistake he has made.
Among Chimpanzees the Alpha male wins his position by building a stable coalition with other males and other females not just through violence.
Human history shows that there is often an inverse relation between physical power and social power. In most societies in history it was the lower classes that did the difficult physical manual labour. Miners, soldiers, slaves, housewives, cleaners use much more muscle, much more physical power than kings and priests and clergymen and managers and judges and generals. The higher you’re up in the hierarchy the less physical power you usually, use and need. This may reflect the position of homo-sapiens as a species within the food chain at large. If all that counted was just raw physical force, sapiens would have found themselves somewhere in the middle of the food chain. The mental and social skills of sapiens place them at the top, not the physical skills. It is therefore only natural that the chain of power within the species itself, within sapiens, will also be determined mainly by mental and social abilities, much more so, than by brute force.
With all due respect to this theory, it is very hard to believe that the most important, most stable hierarchy in human history is founded simply on the ability of men to beat up women.
Another theory explains that the dominance of men over women results from something more complicated; aggression. According to this theory, for millions of years men evolved to become willing to engage in physical violence much more than women. This is why throughout history warfare was the monopoly, mainly, of men. Men were the warriors, the soldiers and generals. They used their control of armies and their control of war and warfare in order to gain control of civil society as well. Once men gained control of civil society, of the country they used those civil powers to engender more and more wars, which made their control of warfare even more important, and thereby closed another of these vicious circles. This was how they strengthened themselves, more and more as the generations, progressed.
Recent studies indeed indicate that the hormonal and cognitive systems of men and women are somewhat different. Men, by nature are indeed more violent, they are more willing to use physical violence against others and therefore men are really better suited to serve as common soldiers than women are. Even if we accept these findings it doesn’t follow that the ones who manage the war overall, the ones who direct the war, and the ones who enjoy the fruits of warfare, must also be men. Just because all the common soldiers are men this doesn’t mean that they also control war and enjoy its benefits. It’s like arguing that just because all the slaves in a cotton plantation are African, it means that the ones who control the plantation, and enjoy its benefits must also be African. All the soldiers who actually do the fighting and killing are men because men are aggressive. But the ones who control war, all the generals and politicians and diplomats, why should they too all be men and not women or at least some men and some women.
In numerous societies throughout history, there was a very big gap between the top officers, the generals and the politicians and the common soldiers the rank and file. In many, many societies people did not rise from the ranks of the common soldiers to become generals and admirals and kings and noblemen. Usually what happened in many societies is that, aristocrats and the wealthy were educated from birth to fulfil the tasks of the chief officers, and diplomats, they never served as common soldiers. In Europe three or four hundred years ago the common soldiers were usually recruited from among the poorest of society, or from among ethnic minorities. The British army recruited a lot of Irish Catholics. The chances of the common soldier climbing up to become a general or prime minister was absolutely zero. No generals and no politicians started as common soldiers. The senior ranks were reserved from early on to all the dukes and princes and kings who never served even one day in the army as common soldiers.
So, why were all the higher ranks in the army and politics reserved only for noble men and not for noble women? Why only dukes and princes, and not duchesses and princesses? It’s impossible to argue that because of their physical weakness or because they were less aggressive and had low testosterone levels, that these noble women couldn’t serve as generals and politicians. In order to manage an army, to control and manage a war, you definitely need a lot of stamina, which is something that women have more than men, but you don’t need much physical strength and you don’t need to be very aggressive. Wars, big wars, they are very different from some brawl in the pub. Big wars are usually very complex projects that require an extraordinary degree of organization, of cooperation and of appeasement, the ability to make compromises. Very often the ability to maintain peace at home and to make alliances with other people abroad, and also the ability to understand what goes through the mind of other people, particularly what goes through the mind of your enemies. Therefore, some aggressive muscle man is often the worst choice to be in charge. He is very good as a common soldier but he’s a terrible choice as a general or admiral or politician who needs to manage a war.
If you want to manage a war well it would be much better to put at the top somebody who is cooperative, knows how to appease others and make alliances, knows how to manipulate other people and who is able to see things from different perspective, especially the perspective of your enemies. Women are usually considered to be much better manipulators and much better appeasers than men are and they are also famed, rightly or wrongly, for the superior ability to see things from the perspective of other people. Men are usually accused of being very self-cantered and egotistic and unable to see things from the perspective of others. If this is so then women should have made excellent politicians and, empire builders and generals and admirals. They would still have to leave the dirty work on the battlefield of actually killing somebody with an axe or a sword, this would, would still have remained the prerogative of men. But, the jobs at the top of actually running the war, this could’ve been done very well maybe even better by women. Nevertheless, we know from history that this only happened very rarely and we don’t know why.
Survival and reproduction
The third most common theory for the rise of patriarchal societies explains that through millions of years of evolution, men and women evolved different survival and reproduction strategies. Men competed with one another for access to fertile women, for the opportunity to impregnate the women. If you were a man your chance of reproducing, and passing your genes to the next generation, depended above all on your ability to defeat other men, and to outperform other men. As time went by the masculine genes that made it to the next generation were those that belonged to the most ambitious, the most aggressive and the most competitive men.
A woman, on the other hand, had no problem finding a man that was willing to impregnate her. However if the woman wanted her children to provide her with grandchildren she needed to carry them in her womb for nine long months then nurture them and take care of them for years. During pregnancy and child care a woman had fewer opportunities to obtain food and required a lot of help. According to this theory they needed a man in order to ensure their survival and that of their children. Women therefore had little choice but to agree to whatever conditions the men stipulated so that he would stay around and share some of the burden. As time went by, the feminine genes that made it to the next generation belonged to the women who were the most submissive caretakers who agreed to everything the man wanted and who spent most of the time taking care of the children.
The result of these different survival strategies is that men have been programmed by millions of years of evolution to be ambitious and competitive and to excel in politics and business and so forth. Whereas women over millions of years tended to move out of the way of the men and to dedicate their lives mainly to taking care of their children and husbands.
This theory too has very big problems. One in particularly is important to understand. It assumes that dependence of women on external help while being pregnant and taking care of children made them dependent upon men and not on other women. On the other hand the assumption that male competitiveness made them socially dominant leads to assumptions that women became, dependent on men and that male competitiveness made them socially dominant. These assumptions may sound logical but they’re not very logical or natural at all.
There are many species of animals such as elephants and bonobo chimpanzees, where the dynamics between dependent females and competitive males result in the formation of matriarchal societies. Matriarchal societies are societies dominated by females. Female elephants and bonobos need help while raising children, but they don’t seek this help from males, they seek it from one another. The result is very strong female bonding. They develop social skills and to learn how to cooperate with and to appease one another. They construct a female social network that helps all of them to raise their children.
The male elephants and bonobos spend much of their time fighting and competing. Because of this their social skills and bonds remain underdeveloped, much less developed than those of the females. The result is that the society of bonobo chimpanzees and elephants is controlled by strong networks of cooperative females whereas the uncooperative and aggressive males are pushed to the side-lines. Even though bonobo females are individually weaker on average than bonobo males, the females often gang up to beat up any male who tries to gain too much power or tries to overstep his limits whereas the males are much less capable of such cooperation.
If this is possible among elephants and bonobos then why not among homo-sapiens? The big advantage of homo sapiens, the secret of their success is the ability to cooperate well in large numbers. Because women are dependent on external help and were able to develop social skills and their ability to cooperate with other women; more than men, we should have seen dominance of men by women and not the other way around. How did it happen that in the one species of animal, whose success depends, above all on cooperation, individuals who are supposedly less cooperative, that is men, control individuals who are supposedly more cooperative, that is women. This is the million dollar question of the history of gender and at present, we don’t have any good answer to it. Maybe the answer is that the common assumptions are simply wrong. Maybe males of the species homo sapiens are for some reason characterized not by physical strength, aggressiveness and competitiveness, but rather superior social skills and a greater tendency to cooperate. This is just a possibility, a theory. At present this question of why men have dominated women throughout history remains one of the biggest unsolved riddles of history.
By creating imagined orders and hierarchies, it was possible for humans to construct functioning societies containing at first many thousands, and eventually many millions of people. Each human society was different they constructed many different kinds of societies, each with its own imagined order and each with its own different social hierarchy. There was no single imagined order or no single social hierarchy that all human groups around the world adopted and accepted. Sparta was different from Athens, China was different from Japan, and the Christian world was different from the Muslim world.
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- Lecture 1 The Human Family (louisecharente.wordpress.com)
- Lecture 2 The Cognitive Revolution (louisecharente.wordpress.com)
Lecture 3 Daily Life in the Stone Age (louisecharente.wordpress.com)
- Lecture 4 The Human Flood (louisecharente.wordpress.com)
- Lecture 5 History’s Biggest Fraud (louisecharente.wordpress.com)
- Lecture 6 Building Pyramids (louisecharente.wordpress.com)