Prehominid origins of patriarchy

Sociobiologists and feminists agree that men in patriarchal societies and religions seek to control females. Sociobiologists go a step further and by using Darwin’s theory of sexual selection attempt to explain why males should try to control female sexuality. Sexual selection covers both competition between male and female choice. However, Darwin assumed that choices were made by essentially ”coy” females. Sarah Hrdy argues in ‘Raising Darwin’s consciousness – Female sexuality and the prehominid origins of patriarchy’ that,

 

“female solicitation of multiple males (either simultaneously or sequentially, depending on the breeding system) characterized prehominid females; this prehominid legacy of cyclical sexual assertiveness, itself possibly a female counter-strategy to male efforts to control the timing of female reproduction, generated further male counter-strategies. This dialectic had important implications for emerging hominid mating systems, human evolution, and the development of patriarchal arrangements in some human societies. For hominid males who will invest in offspring, there would be powerful selection for emotions, behaviors, and customs that ensure them certainty of paternity. The sexual modesty that so struck Darwin can be explained as a recent evolved or learned (perhaps both) adaptation in women to avoid penalties imposed by patrilines on daughters and mates who failed to conform to the patriline’s prevailing norms for their sex. Other supposedly innate universals, such as female preferences for wealthy husbands, are also likely to be facultative accommodations by women to constraints set up when patrilines monopolized resources needed by females to survive and reproduce, and passed on intergenerational control of these resources preferentially to sons.”

 

Feminism

Hrdy’s study is both stimulating and extremely valuable. Applied to patriarchal religions it can help to explain the institution of feminism. Feminism is not a natural step in evolution, neither is it a deviation from the ‘natural laws of God.’ Feminism is, in fact, an awakening of the female to realise that patriarchy is not natural and hence could not have been created, implied or advocated by the Creator. It is a regression to the natural origins of the homo-sapiens.

 

Younger wife

Hrdy originally delivered the chapter as a lecture in the Herbet Spencer Lectures at Oxford University in 1995. In the article, Hrdy argues that selection of a young female for mating is against the natural selection of all primates who almost always choose an adult female for copulation who are experienced and parous hence indicating that they can produce offspring. She asks, “why would male Homo sapiens, virtually unique among primates, be so attracted to neotenous traits?” This unnatural preference, she states, is patriarchal and is derived from purely human institutions whereby men “do not merely mate with virginal and compliant young females, but acquire them as wives, concubines, or slaves whom they essentially ‘own’, and as a consequence … are also obliged to provide for long term.”

 

Providing for the female

In all other species males and females fend for themselves, indeed in many species it is the female that hunts while bearing offspring, giving birth and lactating. But in human beings the need to control and own the female is so strong in the male that he is willing to take the responsibility to provide for her. It is no wonder then that “patriarchal marriages guaranteed maintenance for discarded or superseded wives, as well as widows.” In this way, alimony does not offer women prestige, honour or freedom but is actually a contributor in their possession by men.

 

Controlling women’s sexuality

Men control women’s sexuality and make them believe that polygyny is natural while polyandry is unnatural because that is the only way a man “can be absolutely sure that he is the one to have contributed that sperm.” Thus, he may “keep her separate from any other man as in a harem, he may threaten her with violence if she strays, he may devise a mechanical method of preventing intercourse like a chastity belt, he may remove her clitoris to decrease her erotic impulses, or he may convince her that sex is the same thing as love and if she has sexual relations with anyone else, she is violating the sacred ethics of love.”

 

The argument is that polygyny is not any more natural than polyandry and if we were meant to evolve as monogamous couples then both polyandry and polygyny must go. Hrdy quotes Sherfey (1966) to argue that “women’s inordinate orgasmic capacity did not evolve for monogamous sedentary cultures”; like other primates a human female is designed for multiple partners which she tactfully managed in ancient cultures when patriarchy hadn’t engulfed her freedom.

 

Modesty

Human females are also known for not overtly exhibiting ovulation any longer. This is not because we are ‘coy’ as Darwin assumed, but because overt exhibition of ovulation endangers the chances of the male mate to copulate. Thus, human females were commanded by patriarchal males to assume modest clothing so as not to display ‘sexual swellings’, the explicit signs of sexual maturity and ability to produce offspring.

 

Polyandry to counter infanticide

Socialbiologists have established that female primates cast a ‘wide net’ of possible paternity so as to ensure the safety of their offspring which are often killed by males that are sure they were not the father. Thus, uncertainty about paternity assured ancient polyandrous women (as well as modern Tibetan and Kalahari desert women) that all mates could be possible fathers who all looked after the child even if the biological father died or was captured. Hrdy gives the example of biblical accounts where suckling infants and other children were to be killed outright as highlighting the natural male ability to commit infanticide which is a “protean phenomenon across animals especially humans” to ensure quick resumption of ovulatory cycles for the mother when her child from another mate is removed from her through death. Patriarchy is therefore unnatural to the human species since it restricts women from casting a wide net of possible paternity while allowing men to have multiple sexual partners. Hence if eradication of polyandry is marketed as an evolutionary step, polygyny should also be eliminated from society since it severely restricts the resources available to a human female through sharing it with other unrelated females as is shown by Chisholm and Burbank (1991).

 

Hrdy states that concealed ovulation, continuous receptivity, face-to-face copulation and female capacity for orgasm are not uniquely human attributes that have evolved, but all this is “much older prehominid heritage that does not assume monogamous mating systems.”

 

The author also argues that, “relative sexual freedom is permitted women under some circumstances, but the vast majority of human cultures practice a double standard of sexual morality which combined with the human capacity for language and propensity for gossip, subjects any woman who cannot account for her whereabouts to damaging            , even lethal, penalties, as well as to internally produced feelings of mortification and shame.”

 

Inheritance

Related to such intimidation and indoctrination is also the monopolization by patrilines of resources needed to survive and successfully rear offspring concentrating resources in male hands through patriarchal inheritance systems. Such systems biases intergenerational transfers of resources in favour of sons who can “keep hold of cattle or land, versus daughters who are particularly vulnerable from having it taken away or diverted to their husband’s lineage.”

 

Concealed ovulation, inheritance transfer, and continuation of polygyny are results of modern life but they are patriarchal and not necessarily a natural step in evolution. Patriarchy was not invented only 2,500 years ago but dates much further back into history. In any case, it is arguably a creation of the mind of the alpha human male to ensure that he can own and mate with the women of his choice so that he only provides for the offspring that his sperm has produced.

 

I thought the article was brilliant. What are your thoughts? … if you are still awake!

 

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11 thoughts on “Prehominid origins of patriarchy

  1. susanne430 says:

    My thoughts are that this is quite interesting info! Applying it to today and the whole feminism topic, what do you suggest we do or strive for knowing this about patriarchy and its role in basically enslaving women to the desires of men?

    Do we demand our rights to many sexual partners? Do we demand our rights to strip down to less modest clothes?

    Curious about your application thoughts on this informative post! Now I’m wondering when patriarchy began!

    • Metis says:

      Thanks Susie! I really enjoyed reading the chapter. It was long and detailed but I loved it.

      I think there are a number of things feminists can learn from the information Hrdy provides:

      1) I think, not secular feminists but, Muslim feminists face the additional challenge of trying to justify what they think is right by linking it to mainstream Islamic thinking. So for example while most will not like the idea of polygyny we will still try and justify it because it exists in the Quran. Hrdy’s study attempts to show that patriarchy is created which may console feminists that they are not wrong in feeling how they feel.
      2) Hrdy argues that monogamy is created too; both male and female primates exhibit polygamous behaviour, especially the females. We can argue that it is wrong to assert that men are polygamous by nature because women are equally polygamous by nature. Hence if polyandry must go, so should polygyny.
      3) I like modest clothing. I find it comfortable and I feel confident when the focus is away from my body when I’m talking to people. Thus I can’t and won’t support immodest clothing. However, now that I know why women are made to cover (while men are not!) I don’t think I will judge women who wish to dress the way they want.
      4) There are feminists who think that being provided for is a privilege; I always felt that way. Now I have something new to think about – how being provided for trades our freedom. I now understand why so many women from conservative societies would give up their right arm to be able to work.
      5) Inheritance is another area that I understand better now.
      6) Women could also learn that they should not feel threatened by younger and more attractive women. Men’s desire for neotenous traits is unnatural. Hrdy believes that when our society reaches a point when men will not be able to ‘own’ women or provide for them, they will go back to selecting their mates based on fertility criteria (fat deposits, wider hips, older, mature, more experienced, possible parous women) rather than wanting neotenous traits.

      Yesterday I said on the Facebook page that I think women are more spiritual. We are also more superstitious and easily convinced. Men, I feel, have used these traits to establish patriarchy through religion. So when a mullah calls us “uncovered meat” and that we will suffer the wrath of God we actually believe it.

  2. M says:

    This is so interesting. More so because after being married and living with a guy, you start to quietly realise and wonder along some of the points that are brought up in the essay. About what is natural, versus what we are socially conditioned to accept.

    On another note, your 5th point in the comment above, about inheritance, I’d like to understand it more too. I was wondering if the formula in the Quran is the bare minimum a parent can do or does it have to be followed exactly, because that just doesn’t make sense to me in our times.
    My parents made a will recently and the Pakistani lawyer eagerly offered the “Islamic will” version. I had to hide my smirk.

    • Metis says:

      “I was wondering if the formula in the Quran is the bare minimum a parent can do or does it have to be followed exactly, because that just doesn’t make sense to me in our times.”

      Never really thought about that, M! Great point. I assume it is what must be followed. Sumera mentioned inheritance in one of her comments and how it is difficult to follow today when daughters earn and support just like sons and in cases like mine where there are no sons and daughters go out of their way to support parents.

  3. Lat says:

    “In all other species males and females fend for themselves, indeed in many species it is the female that hunts while bearing offspring, giving birth and lactating. But in human beings the need to control and own the female is so strong in the male that he is willing to take the responsibility to provide for her..”

    To this I agree.But why is it so strong in the male? Is it only thru’ religion that humans act this way? What about the alpha male like the silverback gorilla,where the superior male rules the harem and the subdordinate males so that they know their place in the group? A female is prevented from mating with another male unless the alpha male loses to another male in a fight who then assumes the title.I thought the gorilla community did exhibit some form of partriachy.As in the penguin and fox,for monogamous setting.

    The animal world does indicate both monogamous and polygamous setting but not the exact pattern like the humans.Most of the time its the females who initiate their sex by letting the males know thru’ their scent.Definitely as the author,Hrdy said.So if both systems are found in the animal world,does it mean they are created and therefore not natural? Sorry I’m just a little confused 🙂

    “Hence if eradication of polyandry is marketed as an evolutionary step, polygyny should also be eliminated from society since it severely restricts the resources available to a human female through sharing it with other unrelated females as is shown by Chisholm and Burbank (1991).”

    Sounds very interesting and so neotenous traits! The natural world reveals more space and scope for how life can be lived but humans definitely have restricted it for control purposes because of how the male feels and wants and thus superiority.I’ve thought how females could’ve played a role in this and your last para in the comment above have explained it quite well..

  4. Metis says:

    “But why is it so strong in the male? Is it only thru’ religion that humans act this way? ””
    No, and in fact Hrdy doesn’t mention religions at all. She dates patriarchy back to many thousands of years before organized religions and Abrahamic religions. She doesn’t blame religions for patriarchy at all.

    Regarding jealous and patriarchal primates, she mentions two species. But she also mentions that even in their case it is the female who selects the alpha male and without her consent he cannot possess her. Even in such cases the case of adultery is high and the alpha male has to bring her back by biting her back etc. In such cases the female doesn’t suffer but the males fight over her with the stronger male often winning. In the case of humans, men have devised ways to incarcerate women and put conditions on them so that they don’t have to fight off other men and die in the process. So men possess women through marriage, keep them indoors, make them cover up and stone them to death for adultery while a male ape will fight off other males. I felt it was interesting that religion plays a role because human females are spiritual and superstitious and God’s will is used to control them while a female primate is not controlled in that way because the concept of religion is absent in that case.

    • Lat says:

      So human males were smart to know what to use to control women so that they don’t have to go around like apes.

  5. Becky says:

    Wow, this is an incredibly thought-provoking article. It’s really interesting to see how patriarchy is built – and yes, I too would be among the women who would get very agitated if I wasn’t allowed to work and “pay for myself” – I have a tendency to very much want “equal distribution”.
    I also liked your thoughts (in the comments) on modest clothing, because personally, I’d rather not be trying to attract as many different men as possible.

  6. mariam says:

    very interesting post,specialy younger wife section!
    “Hrdy believes that when our society reaches a point when men will not be able to ‘own’ women or provide for them, they will go back to selecting their mates based on fertility criteria (fat deposits, wider hips, older, mature, more experienced, possible parous women) rather than wanting neotenous traits”
    it seems men are driving force for shaping trends in marriage,when they are unnatural, marry younger women and when are natural marry older women, so what is role of women,what is natural for women?

    on base of recent data in 10% of all marriages registerd last year in Iran, wife is older than husband.
    10% is a big number for semi traditional society of Iran,and I dont see any success for women in this trend, as every day pass,middle class men(in cities) become less caring and less responsible,a 25 years old man perefer to marry a 35 years old woman who has a home,a car and a good salary which can support them,thank to Botox and so many beauty methods a 30 something can look 20 something.
    I think marrying with 10 years older woman is as unnatural as marrying with 10 years old younger woman.

    • Metis says:

      Mariam, thanks for such a thought-provoking comment. I liked your thoughts on age and marriage. It makes perfect sense – men want to marry older women so they can literally raise them 🙂 I can understand why you are agianst them.

      I don’t think Hrdy meant men should marry women older than them, but she meant in the animal world, male primates are not attracted to young females but females that are fully adult which means not necessarily older than the male but that their bodies are mature to bear offspring and rear it.

      “so what is role of women, what is natural for women?”

      To follow men 😀 Just joking! I guess many don’t care what is natural for women. They have never cared hence the need for feminism!

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