Book: The Alphabet vs. The Goddess

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, Leonard Shlain.

I don’t frequently get defeated by books. When I was a kid, I forced my parents to keep reading through the entire series of Narnia novels at bedtime, despite the fact that I constantly fell asleep and didn’t (and don’t) remember a single thing. I’m one of those people who finds it very hard to put a book down once I have started reading it. The Alphabet Versus the Goddess is one of those rare gems. I’ve stopped after page 102 out of 432.

It’s hard to know where to begin. I should offer an apology. This book was a gift on the assumption that I’d be interested. It’s very hard for me to blame my mom–based on the description of the book, it is the kind of thing I might well be interested in. I was skeptical from when I read the blurb, because of the grandness of the hypothesis, but even scientistic history that tries to offer grand explanations for History (these never work) can make interesting reading, depending on the writer and the research. Any good writing can offer compelling thoughts even to the ultimately unconvinced.

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess tries to make the case the all of human history is a conflict between two modes of communication: the word and the image. According to Shlain, the word is associated with a “left-brained,” “masculine” mode of thinking, and the image with a “right-brained,” “feminine” mode. The growth of alphabetic literacy in the 2nd millennium BC wrought a neurological shift in the human brain, making our societies more left-brained. Thus matriarchal religion and society fell to patriarchy.

I don’t know if Shlain ever mentions the fact–he does not in the first 102 pages–that the first time the global literacy rate passed 50% was during the 1940s. Anno Domini. In 1800–Anno Domini–only about 12% of the world’s people could read. It isn’t clear how many people could read in 1500 BC, but it was almost certainly lower than 12%. Shlain claims in his introduction that the book took him 7 years to write. There is something a little sad about that. Shlain might as well have made the same case about echolocation. Writing cannot change the brains of the illiterate any more than music can change the brains of the deaf.

In fairness, it’s conceivable that Shlain might try to weasel out of this problem by asserting that yes, while only a small fraction of the population could read, that was the fraction in power, and they imposed patriarchy on the masses of illiterate feminists. He does not, to my knowledge, do this. The few times that he even hints at literacy among the population, he says things like, “The system confounded all but an extremely small group of literate cognoscenti, who formed a highly specialized elite.” Shlain does have this habit of presenting directly contrary evidence and then plowing on without apparently realizing that it’s contrary.

But this criticism is to deal with the book on its own terms. It is to acknowledge the assumptions the book makes and then counter that the thesis is unsupported by evidence. There are much deeper problems. There are two that stand out to me: the assumption that his concepts are objective and immutable, and lack of historical justification as practically a methodological choice.

The first of these problems is evident from the beginning, but the great assertion of it comes on page 5: “I will use the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ in their transcendent sense. Every human is a blend of these two principles.” It is my great hope that I don’t come off as ignorant if I admit that I don’t know anything about a “masculine or feminine principle,” and I have no idea what it means to describe a gender role as “transcendent,”

Shlain is making an essentialist assumption. On the very first page, he explains, “For now, I propose that a holistic, simultaneous, synthetic and concrete view of the world are the essential characteristics of a feminine outlook; linear, sequential, reductionist, and abstract thinking defines the masculine.” He acknowledges that people are able to think in both modes and that no one is exclusively an expression of one. Nevertheless, Shlain offers no justification for the system itself.

Ironically (again, at least in the first quarter of the book, which is where the justification of this system must appear lest the argument fail), the only allusion to the reality of his binary is given as follows: “Associating images with the feminine would seem to fly in the face of numerous scientific studies that demonstrate that males are better at mentally manipulating three-dimensional objects than their female counterparts. Also, numerous other studies reveal that young females are more facile with words, spoken and written, than are their male peers. Despite these studies attributing different image and word skills to each sex, I will present many cultural, mythological, and historical examples that will solidly connect the feminine principle to images and the masculine one to written words” (5). Is this a prank?

As far as I can tell, Shlain never offers such cultural, mythological, and historical examples, but even if he really did, they would hardly be relevant. The thesis is about brains, sexual dimorphism among them, and how different media affect them. If he wants to argue that “holistic, simultaneous, synthetic, and concrete” thinking are somehow feminine and that “linear, sequential, reductionist, and abstract,” he needs to begin with the living brains of men and women. He needs to establish that there is a real connection between his modes of thinking and sexes. Given the plasticity of brains and the power of socialization, this would still be unconvincing, but that is what he would have to do to make his case.

This is not to mention the fact that he never really defines “holistic, simultaneous, etc.” as modes of thinking. What does it mean for a thought to be linear as opposed to holistic or simultaneous as opposed to sequential? This is a question for philosophies of mind, which is full of difficulties. That he must at least make the attempt is apparently lost on Shlain.

The importance of definitions might be clearer if I appeal to languages: naine, mujer, женщина, and γυνή. All can be translated by the English word “woman.” This is an important distinction. None of these words means “woman.” They all translate as “woman.” Each of these words refer to an idea embedded in the culture that uses the word. There may be a biological pattern generally distinguished by a pair of X chromosomes and certain anatomical features, but “woman” is defined by culture and circumstance. This is why a person with XY chromosomes and functioning male genitalia is entitled to call herself a woman if she chooses.

Terms can also mislead. The very words we use often create illusory congruences. The “Battle of Hastings” is an entirely different sort of battle from the “Battle of Fallujah.” This is not merely to note that the Normans used horses and the Americans used tanks. The differences are greater than technological. The obligations of a soldier were different, the way the soldiers related to each other and conceived of the war were different. The armies were constituted differently and related to their societies differently. The justifications for engagement were completely different. The rules of engagement, both legal and moral, were different. The role of the media was completely different. Given all of this, is it not entirely unreasonable to suggest that we shouldn’t call them both “battles.” This is not even to deal with metaphor. The Battle of Hastings and the Battle of Fallujah have much more in common with each other than either of them has to the “battle for hearts and minds.”

Shlain’s failure to appreciate the vast differences across culture, time, and language lead him to commit an unfortunately common sin, especially among arrogant Westerners: the assumption that his modes of thought are universal and can be applied to all times and places. Here is a juicy eye-roll about the sexual practices of people who lived 500,000 years ago: “New wives (or husbands) came or went, depending on social mores, but the tribe maintained a tight cohesiveness.” The jaw-dropping cluelessness of the phrase “depending on social mores” is simply too good to ignore. Shlain is vaguely conscious that such things as mores exist but not enough to refrain from assuming that our prehistoric ancestors had marriages.

Not only do we know literally nothing about these people’s social practices, but the problems with the term “marriage” are the same as those with “battle.” They are the problems with “feminine,” “masculine,” and they are even the problems with “linear,” “sequential,” “holistic,” and so on. Modes of thought and feeling are also culturally constructed. While American psychiatric patients report depression as a psychological condition defined by despair, Chinese patients tend to experience it more as boredom, and more often claim that it affects them physically more than psychologically. There may well be a “psychic unity of mankind”–none of us thinks like a dolphin–but the scope for variation within it is enormous. Not all cultures would imagine that thinking exists on a binary spectrum with synthetic on one hand and reductionist on the other. The very terms are cultural.

But as I say, Shlain assumes that these modes of thinking are meaningfully distinguishable from each other, that they are binary, that they are sexually dimorphic, and that they are universal. He then launches into a just-so story out of Evolutionary Psychology in order to account for how men and women came to think in a way that he has never shown they do. This leads me to my second point, that Shlain’s method is to make large claims and provide absolutely no evidence.

The just-so story about human origins: men hunted and became violent, women gathered and were nurturers, has always been utterly without evidence. We have been assumed to be hunters by male chauvinists, but there is practically no evidence either way. I suggest Donna Hart and Robert Sussman’s Man the Hunted.

I will spend more time on the historical period. There is a long-standing belief that prehistoric and possibly early-historic societies were matriarchal. This is based on the existence of lots of images of female figures. (When I say lots, I mean some. Again, evidence from these periods is almost nonexistent.) The logic is more or less as follows: we have female figures in the archaeological record. These seem to be associated with sacred sites. They must be a goddess. Therefore their religion was matriarchal. Therefore their societies were matriarchal.

To illustrate: it is 3000 years in the future. The only thing you know about English history is that for most of the 19th century, England and its empire were ruled by a woman called Victoria. You have some surviving images of her. Do you assume her society was also matriarchal?

This pales in comparison to Chapter 10, which I read with my jaw open. (This is the chapter that convinced me to put the book down.) Shlain explains, “The origins of Judaism are important to this book’s thesis because of the exclusionary First Commandment, proclaimed at a time when the Goddess still held a place of high regard in people’s hearts and lives. That a religion was founded on the precept that a masculine deity created life without any female participation signaled that something had changed radically” (88).

Two pages later: “Exercising an author’s right to poetic license, I will speculate on what life would have been like for Abram growing up in Ur.” Fine, poetic license, although Shlain seems to think his speculations constitute evidence. He then more or less regurgitates the story of Exodus, replete with miracles, as the factual account of the origins of the Jewish people. No. I am not making this up.

The following chapter, which I looked through to see if Shlain really wants to use Biblical miracle claims as evidence, tries to argue that “For the sake of argument, let us assume they [the events of Exodus] occurred but were not the result of divine intervention. We have no reason to doubt that the Hebrews faithfully recorded what they saw” (103). This is certainly true: the Jews who had seen all these events in Egypt faithfully recorded the events that they had seen a full thousand years after they saw them. Manna is great for aging.

Shlain then tries to argue that the actual events of Exodus owe their origin to a volcanic eruption that took place on the island of Santorini around 1600 BC. A quick Google reveals that this is also the argument of a History Channel documentary called The Exodus Decoded. Mocked by historians and archaeologists, one presumes it comes on right after Ancient Aliens.

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