Robert McElvaine

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Robert McElvaine

Robert S. McElvaine (born January 24, 1947) is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts and Letters and Chair of the Department of History at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, where he has taught for thirty-five years. He is the author of seven books and the editor of three.

Eve’s Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History is a 2001 book by noted American historian and writer Robert S. McElvaine that introduced the new field of “biohistory” and presents a major reinterpretation of the human experience. This “provocative study” is history on the grandest scale. It “re-synthesizes the full sweep of human history around the concept of sexual difference.” McElvaine utilizes biology, anthropology, psychology, religious studies, women’s studies, and popular culture, in addition to more traditional history, in weaving his reinterpreation of the course of human history from evolution to the present. He builds upon and extends the work of such thinkers as Karen Horney, Margaret Mead, Ashley Montagu, and Gerda Lerner.

SQSwans Robert McElvaine Correspondence/Reports.

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Eve’s Seed: Biology, the Sexes and the Course of History

Overview

Eve’s Seed: Biology, the Sexes and the Course of History, by Robert S McElvaine

McElvaine argues that because women can do certain things that men cannot—carry and give birth to offspring and nourish them from their bodies—many men have experienced to varying degrees what psychoanalyst Karen Horney termed “womb envy.” Such insecure men have long attempted to define manhood in terms of complete opposition to womanhood. A “real man” has been seen in most cultures as “notawoman.” To counterbalance the biological “no-man’s lands” of pregnancy, birthing, and nursing, men create artificial “no-woman’s lands.” To compensate for what men cannot do, they tell women they may not do other things. Which areas women are excluded from vary from culture to culture, McElvaine writes, but they have usually included the clergy, politics, the military, and most of the business world.

Among McElvaine’s contentions are that the invention of agriculture—which he believes was almost certainly accomplished by women, who were responsible for the provision of plant food in hunter-gatherer societies—disrupted the long-standing roles of the sexes and, over a period of time, devalued the traditional male roles, especially hunting. McElvaine begins the book by saying that if he had to sum up human history in a single sentence, it would be: “Hell hath no fury like a man devalued.”

Ultimately, the McElvaine Thesis maintains, agriculture provided men with a metaphor—seeds planted in the furrowed soil seemingly being analogous to men “planting” semen in the furrowed anatomy of a woman—that enabled them to claim that males are the sex with creative power: the authors of new life who therefore have authority over women. It necessarily followed that the Ultimate Creative Power, God, must also be male. This prehistoric mistake has, McElvaine says, enormously influenced all of history.

Synopsis

  • Because men cannot compete with women’s capabilities in the crucial realms of reproduction and nourishing offspring, McElvaine argues, men generally seek to avoid a single standard of human behavior and achievement. They create separate definitions of “manliness” which are based on a false opposition to “womanliness.” A “real man” has been seen in most cultures as “notawoman.”
  • Although this viewpoint actually begins with woman as the “standard” human and proceeds to define man by its supposed vast differences from that standard, people do not like to see themselves in negative terms, so men have generally sought ways to transform woman into a negative, thus making man positive.
  • Human life—and the situation of both sexes—was radically changed about 10,000 years ago by the invention of agriculture, which in all likelihood was accomplished by women.
  • In one of his most striking contentions, McElvaine says that the story of Adam and Eve in the third chapter of Book of Genesis is an allegory for the invention of agriculture by women (Eve’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge) and its long-term consequences (the loss of what seemed in distant retrospect to have been a pre-agricultural paradise in which people lived easily, without work, simply picking fruit from trees, and man having to go forth and till the soil to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow). The “Fall of Man” is a metaphor for an actual fall of men.
  • McElvaine says that the development of methods for the intentional production of food (animal herding as well as agriculture) substantially devalued what men had traditionally done. Hunting was no longer needed and defense against other species declined in importance as groups of humans settled in growing numbers in farming areas into which predators ventured less frequently than their paths had crossed those of human hunter-gatherers.
  • The loss of value in their traditional roles left men adrift, seeking new meaningful roles, and increasingly resentful of women. The result was what can accurately be seen as a Neolithic and early Bronze Age backlash or “masculinist movement.”
  • At this point, McElvaine argues, there arose an almost irresistible metaphor, the very widespread acceptance of which has misshaped human life through all of recorded history. The apparent analogy of a seed being planted in furrowed soil to a male’s “planting” of semen in the vulva of a female led to the conclusion that men provide the seed of new life and women constitute the soil in which that seed grows. This Seed Metaphor, which McElvaine calls “the Conception Misconception,” has remained with us throughout history and it continues to mislead us in profound ways down to the present.
  • The woman-made world of agriculture had, paradoxically, become a man’s world to a degree unprecedented in human existence. As McElvaine puts it: “Hell hath no fury like a man devalued.”
  • The belief that men have procreative power led inevitably to the conclusion that the supreme Creative Power must also be male. The toxic fruit that grew from the Seed Metaphor, McElvaine says, was male monotheism.
  • The combination of the belief that God (or the god who is the ultimate creator) is male with the notion that humans are created in God’s image yielded the inescapable conclusion that men are closer than women to godly perfection. Thus the line from the misconceptions about conception emanating from the seed metaphor to the belief, given its classic expressions by Aristotle, Aquinas, and Freud, that women are deformed or “incomplete” men is clear and direct.
  • Once the Seed Metaphor had sprouted into the idea that God is male and so women are inferior, the original “notawoman” definition of manhood took on new and more menacing implications. Now what had been an essentially horizontal division became a clearly vertical one: traits and values associated with women were not simply classified as improper for men, but as inferior.
  • The total subordination of women throughout recorded history, McElvaine argues, is but the first part of the devastating legacy of the Neolithic backlash and the Seed Metaphor. Equally important has been the concomitant suppression in men of all values, ideas, and characteristics associated with women and so defined as inferior. The rest, he says, is history—pretty much all of it—and, the gains of women in recent decades notwithstanding, these legacies from mistaken ideas in the Neolithic Age continue to have enormous effects on us today.

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Review & Excerpts:

“What is history? The lie that everyone agrees on…” – Voltaire

In Eve’s Seed: Masculine Insecurity, Metaphor, and the Shaping of History, and Eve’s Seed: Biology, the Sexes and the Course of History, Robert McElvaine described it thus: “Karl Marx had it wrong. Class has, to be sure, been a major factor in history; but class itself is a derivative concept that is based on the ultimate causative power in history: sex. Marx‘s famous formulation must be revised: The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of struggles based on the division of our species into two sexes, jealousies emanating from this division, exaggerations of the differences between the sexes, misunderstandings about sexual reproductive power, and metaphors derived from sex. Together, these closely related matters constitute the most important, but largely neglected, set of motive forces in human history. Control — or the claim of control — over the means of reproduction has been even more fundamental to history than has control of the means of production

Robert McElvaine “throws down the gauntlet to academics and non-specialists alike, daring a radical rethinking of the basic ‘truths’ on which cultures have been constructed.” He argues that “there is nothing unique to Islam about male insistence on the subordination of and male control over women and their bodies.” McElvaine says misogynistic rulers may be religious fanatics, but their religion is not Islam, but Woody Allen‘s religion in his 2001 movie, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion: “insecure masculinity”.

Eve’s Seed reviews “some 94 centuries of human history, stretching from 8,000 B.C.E. and the invention of agriculture through the Middle Ages”, to 20th century America, explaining how and why sexually insecure – “not-a-woman” – men seek validation of their manhood by pursuing power, and have used their power to disproportionately influence the shaping of cultures.

According to John Pettegrew, Deepening the History of Masculinity and the Sexes: “Vitally important to early economic and political history (bringing such changes as the creation of substantial material surplus and the rise of large states and war), agriculture—what McElvaine describes as the first of two “mega-revolutions”—also sparked a massive male “backlash,” as the female invention of planting crops and animal husbandry undermined the male role as hunter. Among the masculinist responses, men took over agriculture and invented war, as women became relegated to increasing the population needed for the new social order.”

Subsequent cultural consequences being the “conception misconception”, that men held all procreative power, and women were simply the dirt, wherein the seed was planted, which led to the assumption that the God-Creative-Force is male. The second mega-revolution occurred in the 16th century with the rise of geographic mobility and the marketplace. Manhood became associated with possessive individualism, however this conflicts with mans natural state towards association and cooperation formed during humanity‘s long history of hunting in groups.

Women can do all the important things that men can (although, because of physical differences, in some areas not as well, on average), but there are some essential things that women can do that men cannot: bear and give birth to children and nourish them from their bodies.

Because of this relative incapacity, many men suffer, largely subconsciously, from what might be termed “womb envy” and “breast envy,” or even the “non-menstrual syndrome.”

To compensate for the things that they cannot do, men tell women that they may not do other things. Which activities women are excluded from varies from one culture to another, but some form of the procedure can be found in all societies. (A striking example of this practice in our own culture can be seen in a statement a Catholic bishop made in 1992: “A woman priest is as impossible as for me to have a baby.”)

Because they cannot compete with women’s capabilities in the crucial realms of reproduction and nourishing offspring, men generally seek to avoid a single standard of human behavior and achievement. They create separate definitions of “manliness” which are based on a false opposition to “womanliness.” A “real man” has been seen in most cultures as “notawoman.”

The “notawoman” definition of manhood leads men greatly to exaggerate the genuine, but small, differences between the sexes. Far from being gender-benders, men tend to be genderextenders. This produces the fallacious, but virtually universal, idea that women and men are “opposite sexes.” This way of thinking can accurately be termed a bi-polar disorder.

Although this viewpoint actually begins with woman as the “standard” human and proceeds to define man by its supposed vast differences from that standard, people do not like to see themselves in negative terms, so men have generally sought ways to transform woman into a negative, thus making man positive.

These basic tendencies have existed throughout history, including what is inaccurately called “prehistory,” but during the vast majority of human existence both sexes had obviously essential roles. Women seemingly produced the children, nourished and cared for them, and also provided a large portion of the food for the group through gathering. Men provided meat through hunting and had the bulk of the responsibility for protecting the group from predators. This added up in many hunter-gatherer societies to some approximation of equality between the sexes.

Human life — and the situation of both sexes — was radically changed by the invention of agriculture, which in all likelihood was accomplished by women. These changes were so dramatic that they comprise one of two mega-revolutions in human existence.

Many ancient myths (including, most notably, chapters 3 of the Book of Genesis) constitute allegories for the invention of agriculture by women (Eve’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge) and its long-term consequences (the loss of what seemed in distant retrospect to have been a pre-agricultural paradise in which people lived easily, without work, simply picking fruit from trees, and man having to go forth and till the soil to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow). The “Fall of Man” is a metaphor for an actual fall of men.

Agriculture moved Homo sapiens from what ecologists refer to as a K-selected reproductive strategy (limited resources make it appropriate to have a small number of offspring and invest heavily in each) to an r-selected reproductive strategy (abundant resources relative to population make it possible and desirable to have a large number of offspring).

This meant that the development of agriculture greatly enhanced the importance of one of the traditional female roles. Women would now be called upon to spend more of their lives in reproduction and less in production of food and other resources.

The development of methods for the intentional production of food (animal herding as well as agriculture) substantially devalued what men had traditionally done. Hunting was no longer needed and defense against other species declined in importance as groups of humans settled in growing numbers in farming areas into which predators ventured less frequently than their paths had crossed those of human hunter-gatherers.

The loss of value in their traditional roles left men adrift, seeking new meaningful roles, and increasingly resentful of women. The result was what can accurately be seen as a Neolithic and early Bronze Age backlash or “masculinist movement.”

As men sought new roles, they took over what had previously been considered female roles. Agriculture itself was one of these. By the time plow agriculture began (ca. 4000 BCE), men were displacing women in the fields.

At this point there arose an almost irresistible metaphor, the very widespread acceptance of which has shaped (or, more accurately, misshaped) human life through all of recorded history. The apparent analogy of a seed being planted in furrowed soil to a male’s “planting” of semen in the vulva of a female led to the conclusion that men provide the seed of new life and women constitute the soil in which that seed grows. This metaphor has remained with us throughout history and it continues to mislead us in profound ways down to the present.

The seed metaphor reversed the apparent positions of the sexes in regard to procreative power. What had always appeared to be a principally female power was transformed into an entirely male power. No longer apparent bystanders in reproduction, men now claimed to be the reproducers, while women were reduced from the seeming creators to the soil in which men’s creations grow. Women were left with all the work of procreation, but men now took all the credit.

During the Neolithic Age, then, women both ceased to be major producers (as men took over the production of plant food along with continuing their traditional responsibility for providing animal food) and ceased to be seen as having reproductive power.

The woman-made world of agriculture had, paradoxically, become a man’s world to a degree unprecedented in human existence. Hell hath no fury like a man devalued.

The belief that men have procreative power led inevitably to the conclusion that the supreme Creative Power must also be male. The toxic fruit that grew from the seed metaphor was male monotheism.

The combination of the belief that God (or the god who is the ultimate creator) is male with the notion that humans are created in God’s image yielded the inescapable conclusion that men are closer than women to godly perfection. Thus the line from the misconceptions about conception emanating from the seed metaphor to the belief, given its classic expressions by Aristotle, Aquinas, and Freud, that women are deformed or “incomplete” men is clear and direct.

As is suggested by the fact that the root of the word authority is author, it is the erroneous idea that men are the “authors” — the creators — that has formed the largely unspoken but pervasive basis for male authority throughout history. A clear example is the patria potestas that gave an ancient Roman man the power to “dispose of” his children. A father was thought to be the creator of “his” children and so he was granted the right to take away the life he was supposed to have given.

The seed metaphor and the mistaken conclusions that followed from it enabled men to stand womb envy on its head. The reversal was given its most influential religious authority in the Bible. The human female is named woman (meaning “out of man”) in Genesis 2 because we are told that the first woman was born from a man. And in Genesis 3 woman’s creative power is reclassified as a curse and burden: “in pain you shall bring forth children.”

The reversal of womb envy found its strongest “scientific” authority in Aristotle’s Generation of Animals, where he argued that the great defect in women is that they lack generative power. In earlier times, when the male role in procreation was not comprehended, men had seemed like “infertile women” or “deformed women.” Aristotle asserted that it was the other way around. By contending that menstrual fluid is a weak form of semen, lacking in the male fluid’s life-giving powers, he also reversed the non-menstrual syndrome. He was saying, in effect, that men have the good genital discharge and menstrual bleeding is just a weak, infertile form of the powerful male secretion.

Once the seed metaphor had sprouted into the idea that God is male and so women are inferior, the original “notawoman” definition of manhood took on new and more menacing implications. Now what had been an essentially horizontal division became a clearly vertical one: traits and values associated with women were not simply classified as improper for men, but as inferior.

The total subordination of women throughout recorded history is but the first part of the devastating legacy of the Neolithic backlash and the seed metaphor. Equally important has been the concomitant suppression in men of all values, ideas, and characteristics associated with women and so defined as inferior.

Since many of the values classified as “feminine” (such as compassion, cooperation, nurturing, and self-sacrifice) are essential for the well-being of human societies, ways had to be found to bring them back, at least to a degree. This was accomplished principally through a series of male religious and philosophical figures, between the sixth century BCE and the first century CE, ranging from Confucius and the Buddha through the later Hebrew prophets and Jesus. These men preached the values that had been defined as feminine to men as well as women.

Religion has played a paradoxical role in the shaping of history based on sex. On the one hand, most religions since the rise of male monotheism have provided major weapons in advancing the argument of male superiority and female subordination. The paradox lies in the fact that religions have also been the principal means through which the more “feminine” characteristics and values have been urged upon society (especially men).

The need to appeal to men was at cross purposes with the objective of religions to restrain some of the maladaptive traits that are classified as “masculine” (e.g. quick resort to violence, hierarchical domination, and competitiveness). Men were unlikely to listen to women telling them to act in ways that had been defined as “feminine,” so a male priesthood seemed essential. But the men who took over Christianity had by the fourth century gone a long way towards “efeminating” (removing its feminine characteristics) the religion.

The basic problem insecure males have with sexual equality is that it threatens to re-establish a single human standard, one that includes areas in which men are unable to compete. Hence such men react fiercely and attempt to reinforce the wall they have erected between the sexes.

The desperate attempts of some men to re-institute a sexual apartheid with clear ideas of hierarchical difference between the sexes can be seen all around us. Examples include the escalation of violent misogyny in popular music, the rise of anorexic chic for women and super body-building as the ideal for men, the Catholic Church’s reiteration of its insistence that women can never be priests, the redoubled efforts of the Nation of Islam, Promise Keepers, and the Southern Baptist Convention to subordinate women, widespread homophobia, the order of the Taliban government in Afghanistan that all women be veiled and all men grow beards, the immense sales of a book whose title asserts that men and women are from different planets, and the proliferation of vulgar sexual language that is rooted in the claim that men are superior to women.

The first step in attempting to deal with the misshaping of the human experience that has been a direct consequence of the misunderstanding of reproductive power that took hold some six thousand years ago is to reject the idea that God is male. The second is to try, at last, to realize just how catastrophic the consequences of accepting the implications of the seed metaphor have been and to accept instead the conclusions about sexual equality towards which our modern understanding of the true nature of procreative power point.

To confront how masculine insecurity’s demand for the Control — or the claim of control — over the means of reproduction has been even more fundamental to our cultural history and cultural institutions, than has control of the means of production

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