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The origins of patriarchy
I just learned that the origins of patriarchy is an issue. Apparently, an ACX grant has been paid to Dr Alice Evans in order to investigate why patriarchy persists more in some places than in other places. One of her steps towards this goal was investigating the origins of patriarchy. Her results can be found on her blog here.
I also wondered a lot why men rule exactly the whole world, or did until about 50 years ago. When I realized the answer, it was so obvious that I felt stupid for not having thought of it earlier.
The obvious answer is: Men make war. Or rather, groups of men make war. The groups that were good at making war remained. The groups that were less good at making war perished. That way, human history is a history of successful male military cooperation. Groups with weak male bonding were defeated by groups where men cooperated better.
A world of amazons?
Small-scale, non-state societies tend to exist in a state of constant war with neighbors. Both anthropological and archeological evidence suggests that war was a very common occurrence in prehistory and that casualties from war were high. In 20th century small-scale societies, tens of percent of all men died from violence. About 30 percent among the lowland Yanomamö in Venezuela and Brazil and more than 60 percent of the Waorani of Peru, for example.
Archeological evidence suggests that this kind of violence is nothing new. Numerous remnants of violent death have been excavated from the Neolithic. Also mass graves where tens of victims of violence were buried.At the Crow Creek site in South Dakota the skeletons of at least 486 people have been excavated. Archeologists estimate that all of them were killed at the same occasion in the middle of the 14th century. All in all, the pressure from violent neighbors seems to have been very high during prehistory.
The question is: Was any system where men as a group didn't rule over women as a group ever capable of winning the wars with other human groups?
Groups where men oppressed women less could win over groups where men oppressed women more. We know that much. But could groups where men did not oppress women at all win over groups that did oppress women to some degree or another?
The lack of societies where women have as much political power as men indicates that the answer was no. All available evidence suggests that female-ruled societies weren't viable in the competition with other societies.
And how could they be? In all societies, power comes from military might. That is a law of nature. How could pre-modern females hold military might? They could
Become warriors themselves
Create violent coalitions through their better ability to cooperate and rule the male warriors through their greater cooperative abilities.
It is rather obvious why strategy 1 failed. Pre-modern warfare requires physical prowess. Women, even non-pregnant women, can't wield clubs and throw spears as forcefully as men. Any pre-modern army of women would quickly be defeated by an army of men.
And yes, there is the exception of Dahomey. But the female soldiers of Dahomey are an outlier due to very specific circumstances. These women warriors originated as a police force of the king. They were all wives of the king (albeit celibate) and as such were untouchable to all mortal men. Being untouchable is of course a great asset if you work as an enforcer.
As the Dahomey society became more and more militarized in the 18th and 19th centuries the women warriors were turned into a regular military unit that assisted the king in his wars. However, the women did not fight in order to promote their own reproductive interests. On the contrary, being the wives of the king they were forbidden all sexual contacts with other men.The institution of female warriors in Dahomey was not an indication of female emancipation but rather an instance of extreme polygamy and male jealousy: The king needed women to guard his wives, because no man was allowed near them.
How about alternative 2? In theory, human females could create strong coalitions and through sheer numbers stay in power in their respective groups. This is how females of the bonobo chimpanzees outpower males. Just like human females are weaker than human males, bonobo females are weaker than bonobo males. Still, as a rule the highest ranked individuals in bonobo groups are female. So obviously, female primates can outrank male primates through being better coalition builders.
Why didn't any human society arise where women built coalitions that forced men to fight on their behalf? Why didn't female commanders order male soldiers around on pre-historic battlefields? Probably because no one orders adult men around much at all in small-scale societies. Men fight their raid wars in their own perceived interests or in the interests of their close relatives. As primatologist Richard Wrangham observed, in small-scale societies coalitions of beta males tend to prevent the rise of alpha males.Such coalitions naturally also prevent the rise of alpha females. Besides, groups of men who fight in their own and their close kin's interests are probably much better motivated than men who fight in the interests of a coalition of women.
In sparsely populated small-scale societies, men have more to gain from warfare than women. Men raid other groups in order to steal their women as wives. Women have no interest in raiding other groups in search of more husbands. Prehistoric women didn't just lack the ability to wage war successfully. They also lacked the motivation.
The end of patriarchy
During human history, a warrior class has ruled over other humans. This is, once again, nature speaking. Among all animals, those with the highest potential for violence have the most freedom of action.
Sometimes the warrior class has consisted of all or most adult men, like in the small-scale societies Richard Wrangham describes. It also consisted of most adult males in Ancient Greek society. The Greeks fought effectively with foot soldiers equipped with weapons cheap enough that ordinary people could afford them. At other times, the warrior class has consisted of few individuals, fighting with weapons so expensive that only the elite could afford them and requiring training that only the elite had the time for. The former societies tended to be more democratic. The latter societies tended to be more despotic.
Before modernity, almost no society had female warriors. Consequently, democracy was never extended to females. Until the 20th century.
The 20th century was a century of mass armies. But it was also a century of industrial warfare. War was made more democratic in two ways:
Millions of soldiers participated on the battlefields
Millions more toiled in the factories producing arms and munitions that were essential for industrial warfare.
For the first time in history, a warrior class could no longer openly oppress a working class, because the warriors were more dependent on the workers than the workers were dependent on the warriors. To be a soldier in one of the great wars of the 20th century was not very difficult (albeit dangerous and unpleasant). It was much more difficult to be one of the scientists, engineers or skilled industrial workers who produced the weapons that the soldiers depended on.
In the 20th century, the societies that were good producers also won the wars. So not oppressing producers became a key factor to winning wars. And producers were both male and female. 20th century societies that were open-minded enough to let women into the factories when the men fought the wars were the most successful warrior nations. I think it is fair to say that women did actually participate in the wars of the 20th century and still participate in the wars today. Modern economies are so integrated that the rockets and tanks used in today’s wars are the products of society as a whole. And women are a productive part of society.
Why is patriarchy not equally patriarchal everywhere?
I think I have now largely answered the question why patriarchy was there (as far as we know) during all of history. One very important question remains: Why was patriarchy so different in different societies? For example, why did some societies seclude women while other societies allowed women to move rather freely?
I think an important part of the answer is memetic drift. Like there is a selection of genes, there is a selection of ideas. But just as there is randomness in the selection of genes, there is also randomness in the selection of ideas.
When it comes to gender relations, there seem to have been different cultures already among the Indo-Europeans. Historian David Anthony writes that women and men were buried in more equal ways among the Indo-European groups that migrated westwards compared to those that migrated eastwards about 4500 years ago. The mythologies of the Western Indo-Europeans were also more female-inclusive. For example, in western Indo-European branches the spirit of the domestic hearth was female (Hestia, the Vestal Virgins), while in Indo–Iranian mythology it was male (Agni). In Western Indo-European mythologies there were strong female deities such as Queen Magb and the Valkyries, while in Indo-Iranian mythology the furies of war were male. It is not improbable that the different cultures of gender oppression between Europe and the Near East have such old roots.
The art of compromise
Females contribute three valuable things to males: Genes (manifested as beauty and physical health), labor and paternity certainty. For the upper classes in a highly stratified society, the female labor contribution is irrelevant. The upper class can afford to seclude their wives in order to increase paternity certainty. For lower class men, however, the value of paternal certainty is limited if most of their children will starve to death anyway.
That way, norms for female modesty could be affected by the class structure of different societies. In societies with strong class differences, the upper class has strong incitements to lock their women up. Since the upper class are carriers of culture, chances are high that the lower classes will imitate their behavior. In more equal societies, men have greater incitements to let women out to work. Muslim culture was mostly built on old Persian and Arab ideals that were created under strong class societies. By contrast, the Germanic culture which forms the base of our modern Western culture was rather egalitarian. That history might have given Western societies more gender-equal norms.
Luxury beliefs in female seclusion costs poor children their health and lives in this now. For example in today's Afghanistan, poverty is exacerbated by modesty norms that forbids women to work outside the home. Norms that increase paternity certainty also lowers the fitness of children of the lower classes. So in effect, modesty norms are a kind of compromise between men of different classes. Monogamy is one way for males to be comparatively equal. Higher degrees of gender equality is another way of increasing equality among men. If women are allowed to work the best they can to provide for their children, more men can become fathers.
If women are allowed to work to their potential, more gets done in general. During the last 500 years, the West accelerated away from the Islamic world, China and India, where women were more secluded than in the West. I don't claim that female participation in the labor force was the sole reason for the West’s success. But I also don't want to deny that it mattered to some degree. As Peter Turchin argues in Ultrasociety (2016), the success of modern society builds on large-scale cooperation. It wouldn't be totally strange if such a society succeeds better if males and females are more of companions and less of prisoners and guards.
History hasn't ended yet
So far, it looks like the Western, less gender-oppressive meme has been a success story. It might have contributed to the highly cooperative societies of the Western world. However, there is one thing the West is bad at producing: Children.
The West is still technologically superior. But in order to survive, a society also needs children to inherit its norms. Currently, it looks like gender equality is a great contraceptive. For that reason, I don't think patriarchy will necessarily diminish. If any society happens to develop memes for how to produce both goods, weapons and children, those memes are likely to form the future. Patriarchy might or might not be a part of the winning concept. The future will tell.
Julian Maxwell Heath, Warfare in Neolithic Europe: An Archaeological and Anthropological Analysis, 2017, page 16
Julian Maxwell Heath, Warfare in Neolithic Europe: An Archaeological and Anthropological Analysis, 2017, page 55
Stanley B Alpern, The Amazons of Black Sparta, 1998, chapter 6
Frans de Waal, Frans Lanting, Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, 1998
Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, Demonic Males, 1996
David W. Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, 2007, page 436
David W. Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, 2007 page 407
See for example Eric Kaufmann, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? 2010