On the two paradigms in human history

Many thinkers nowadays identify two paradigms in human history--two potential ways to organize the human experience. While models are simplistic and only approximate reality, they can be useful tools.

Riane Eisler calls them the "dominator" and " partnership" paradigms. Ralph Abraham, one of the pioneers of chaos theory, refers to the partnership paradigm as the 'Orpheus strain'. It is associated with:

  • a regard for all life as sacred (sometimes manifest as vegetarianism)
  • a high priority for peace and security
  • the avoidance of violence
  • rituals and myths focused on love
  • sexual laxity
  • a high regard for music and math
(Abraham, Chaos, Gaia, Eros, p. 3)

He believes that this tradition can be traced all the way back to the paleolithic past and that elements of it resurface in historical cycles.

I've summarized here some of the dualisms I associate with the two traditions:

dominatorpartnership
orderchaos
centralized authorityindividuality/anarchy
rigidly hierarchical and male-dominatedegalitarian
gap between rich and poordistribution of resources
grows like a cancerin harmony with nature
genetic homogeneity?genetic diversity?
warpleasure
deathlife
GodMother Goddess and nature spirits
takersleavers (terms by Daniel Quinn)

It's not a coincidence that these tendencies cluster together like that; they lead to one another logically. The dominator paradigm is all about greed, people wanting more resources than they can possibly use. The way for a family to maintain its wealth is to concentrate it in the hands of one heir; otherwise, if you divide it up among all the children, it will diminish. It is natural to pass it on to sons rather than daughters since they are more aggressive and so can guard it against all the greedy hordes looking to steal it. And so you get male dominance and patriliny (inheritance through the male line). Warfare, the glorification of conquering kingdoms and pillaging wealth, becomes glorified, and so warlike male gods are worshipped.

Primogeniture, meaning inheritance of everything by the oldest son has traditionally been more important the richer and important the family is, since there is all the more wealth to concentrate into those few hands. In the old days, it certainly led to lots of conflict and jealousy, since the younger sons of dukes or whatever would get no title and far less money than their older brothers (and of course, women usually get nothing, and are in fact usually property themselves.) In fact it is only this year that they abolished primogeniture for the royal family in England.

So, passing the wealth from father to son means that a father must know who his sons are. The only way to insure this is to keep a tight control over your woman's sexuality. It's easier to do this if women are kept fearful and brainwashed into submission, and in fact if everyone is brainwashed into submission the sex urge is far less likely to get out of control. So you get a rigid, authoritative social structure to keep people down. Say goodbye to pagan orgies.

In ancient Sumerian the word for freedom was "amargi", which literally meant "return to the mother."

Of course, I recognize that the male urge to guard women and control them is not only a function of inheritance of wealth; there is a strong biological basis. If a man could monopolize all the women, he would be the most genetically successful. This is the explanation for male sexual jealousy that is most often stated. However, there is another factor that is often ignored--male genetic competition is not only about mating rights, but also sperm competition. If several males mate with one female, their sperm will survive for a while in her reproductive tract, and the stronger, more virile sperm will have a better chance of fertilizing the egg. Sperm competition plays a greater role in some species than in others. In species where it plays a large part, the males have big testicles so as to contribute more sperm. In species where it plays a small part, sexual competition is more important so the males protect their mates more jealously. It seems to me that human males have really big ones compared to gorilla and chimp males...hence would there not be a latent tendency in us for sexual promiscuity?

Then there's the important matter of human females losing estrus, or heat. That is, humans are one of only two mammals I know of who are sexually receptive all the time instead of only when they are in heat. The other species is the bonobo chimp, a subspecies of chimpanzee that has a matrilineal social structure (males inherit their social rank through their mother, and female bonding is more central to the group than male bonding). They are also less violent than chimps and extremely sexy--they engage in sex constantly and in a variety of positions. They are even into homosexual and group sex. In fact, sex is a sort of a "glue" that keeps the band together and eases tensions. Also, when there are lots of horny females, all the time, there is far less reason for males to compete over them.

The most prevalent theory for why humans lost estrus is that if women were always sexy, the males would hang out and help provide for their kids. I'm not sure I entirely understand this reasoning--why wouldn't the males bail after they've succeeded in getting her pregnant?

At any rate, this theory is widely accepted, and it hinges on the assumption that male help is crucial to the survival of offspring. I for one am not entirely convinced by the argument that women with kids were helpless and unable to feed themselves and their kids; in hunter-gatherer societies, women provide the majority of the food with their gathering. Is there strong evidence against the possibility that females would switch off--some would watch the kids while the others foraged for food? Uncles could also have played a large role; males of many species will provide for their sister's kids because they are definitely genetic relatives. Also, in a highly sexed society like the bonobos, frequent sex might have held together the group and encouraged food sharing. Bonobo males share food with many females and young, having no idea which kids might be theirs. If humans had orgies on the full moon, as some people think they did back in the pagan days, you could be related to anyone. Therefore, you would be more willing to share food with all your cousins, and so females would not be dependent having one husband to bring home the bacon.

However, it's likely that there is an important difference between us and the bonobos, despite having nyphomaniac tendencies in common. Bonobos live in dense jungle where food is everywhere. You could just sit on your ass and pick up food all around you. Whereas in the savannah where humans evolved, food was probably a lot more widely distributed. Males would have had to have travelled longer distances and cooperated with each other to find food, therefore selecting for a male-bonding patrilineal pattern. If food was a drag to come by, maybe males would have been willing to share only with their own offspring. That is, the more energy something requires, the more closely related you have to be to someone before you'll do it for them.

At any rate, nobody knows how it came to be that human females are always in heat. Looking at bonobos or chimps or gorillas is only going to get us so far, since all the species diverged from a common ancestor a long time ago. If anyone can think of some evidence that would shed light, or can point out flaws in my reasoning, please email me...I'm only a dillettante anthropologist and don't have time to do much research. I'm just trying to throw out ideas and think it through.

My point is, though, that it's easy to sit around speculating and come up a biological basis for either the partnership or dominator model. Some scholars seem to believe that the partnership paradigm flourished on earth for the majority of human history until about 5000 BC when "barbarians" conquered and forced everybody into warfare or annihilation. These early Eurasians were apparantly pastoralists who lived peacefully and built their villages in scenic spots, rather than on easily-defensible hilltops. The dominator paradigm of the barbarians developed in only one or a few places, the theory goes, in harsh environments where survival was difficult. Riane Eisler speaks of the Indo-Europeans from the northern steppes of Russia as being the source of dominator culture. Once they started conquering though, it spread like wildfire, and nowadays there are few partnership cultures left.

It if is true that there was a long stable period of time where cooperation prevailed over competition, then you could argue that the shift to competition and domination was the most significant event in human history. In that case, distinctions such as communist vs. capitalist, democracy vs. aristocracy, or East vs. West are insignificant, since they are all just strains of the dominator pattern. That is why revolution never works; "revolution" actually means to cycle around and around, as one tyrant destroys and replaces the other.

We have all bought into the dominator paradigm to the point where we either never think to question it. We take it for granted the chest-thumping frat boys have been calling the shots since the dawn of time, as it was in the opening scene of the movie 2001 a Space Odyssey. If we even think about it, we assume it that might-makes-right is a Law of Nature; if we even imagine a society without war, we dismiss it as a utopian fantasy.

I personally believe that both strains are equally "built-in" to human nature. There is an obvious parallel in the animal world. In some species, the male is noticeably larger and more aggressive than the female, and often sports dangerous appendages such as tusks or horns. In others, the male and female are so similar in size that most people can't tell the difference. This difference in mass can be expressed as a ratio and is referred to as the sexual dimorphism. In species with high sexual dimorphism (a big difference between the male and female), there tends to be a rigid male hierarchy, with only the alpha males mating with the majority of the females. In species with low sexual dimorphism, males and females often mate in pairs and cooperate in raising the young.

Well it turns out that humans' sexual dimorphism index is halfway between baboons, on one hand, where the males have huge tusks; and most New World monkeys, on the other hand, where the males and females look the same. In other words, we have the potential to swing both ways.

Nobody knows what caused things to swing from partnership to dominator, back in prehistory, if in fact this happened. Some people theorize that it was the invention of agriculture. Agriculture allowed humans to control food production and therefore create a surplus--this then allowed greed to be possible. But Riane Eisler points that agriculture far predates the alleged spread of dominator culture. Others theorize that it was actually the invention of the plow, since it required male strength and therefore made women irrelevant in the production of food.

But I would argue that the dominator paradigm needs no special reason to evolve, that it is a strategy as natural as the partnership paradigm. All that was necessary for it to spread all over the world was the invention of bronze weapons and the domestication of the horse. Barbarians in chariots with swords would have been unstoppable...and peaceful Goddess-worshippers would have been sitting ducks.

So it's easy to see how barbarians could have spread their culture to all the people they conquered. But Eisler's description of the Indo-Europeans didn't satisfy me as to what happened in say, South America. How is it that even tribal peoples that have had little contact with other cultures all mostly follow the dominator paradigm?

I found a possible answer to this in reading Rupert Sheldrake's amazing book Presence of the Past. It's a theoretical explanation of the 100th Monkey phenomenon: once enough members of a population adopt a certain behavior, that behavior tends to reach critical mass and soon everybody's doing it. Sheldrake presents very convincing anecdotal evidence of how behaviors have spread between populations that are not in contact with one another. For example, let's say a young monkey invents the process of washing potatoes to get the dirt off. Slowly this may spread among her peers and finally to her children and then when the old farts die off everybody is doing it. At that point, suddenly, all the monkeys on a nearby island start doing it, even though there is no contact between them.

This phenomenon has no explanation in mainstream science. Sheldrake hypothesizes that knowledge, both at the level of individual memories and at the group or species level, is stored in what he calls morphogenetic fields. Our brains are like TV antennae that can pick up the data stored in these fields. The closer to home something is, the more you are affected by its field; for example, every squirrel is affected by the morphic field for squirrels. The behavior of squirrels today are affected by the habits of squirrels in the past--that is, the more squirrels that have done something, the more likely it is that a squirrel will do it. Sheldrake gives examples of human behaviors that become more easy as more people do it--for example, running the four minute mile.

If we are to accept this for a moment, then it would make sense that once the dominator strain reached enough people, that it would spread to others through these mysterious nonlocal means.

So as you can see, I am trying to tie together a lot of concepts and trends that seem vaguely related in my mind. I don't pretend to have any answers, so I want to throw out a bunch of questions. If you have answers, or comments, or evidence to show that something I've said is totally ridiculous, you can email me. I am doing this because I want to start a dialogue about these topics to understand them better. However, don't be offended if I don't answer since sometimes I get really busy.

Do the species that evolve the dominator paradigm in mating (those with high sexual dimorphism) share some environmental conditions? In other words, do certain environmental pressures lead to the adoption of a dominator strategy for a species or a culture?

When is it advantageous to have only a few strong males in the genepool instead of having genetic diversity?

Is dominator culture like a cancer--good for the cells (it spreads very quickly) but bad for the host (Earth)? Or maybe like a virus? Ultimately what good is a parasite that destroys its host?

Does evolution operate at the level of planets and galaxies--in other words, is there a critical difference at the organizational level of the planet, or are planets subject to evolution the same way a species is? That is, maybe a planet whose life learns to choose cooperation and avoid eating itself would spread throughout the universe??

If that is true, that kinder gentler planets will survive and flourish, would that imply that morality is a factor in evolution--suggesting some sort of higher path in the universe?

Accepting for a moment this idea that evolution is proceeding according to some sort of Plan, then what is the purpose of the dominator strain if the partnership paradigm is needed to evolve beyond the planet? Could it be that the concentration of wealth allows for greater advances in technology? That is, maybe the dominator paradigm is a "phase" in evolution that catalyzes the development of certain types of technologies?

April, 1998