Sex, Time and Power:
How Women’s Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution
Leonard Shlain

Review published in Books in Canada, March 2004.

How often have feminists decried the myth of Zeus birthing his daughter Athena from his head as overt unapologetic male womb envy? After all, Zeus ate Athena’s mother whole in his attempt to control the fruit of her womb! Now along comes Leonard Shlain birthing Athena’s prehistoric sister, Gyna sapiens, out of his fertile imagination, in psychobiological terms, his right brain, in plainspeak — his head. But unlike the less evolved Zeus, Shlain’s motive is curiosity not control, a curiosity that becomes compassion for Gyna’s Unknown Mother and for Gyna herself. In Sex Time and Power, Shlain carefully distinguishes Gyna from her male counterpart Homo in order to give her a name and a story of her own — Her-story. After thus birthing Gyna, Shlain weaves a protective basket for his daughter of deeptime, then casts her adrift on the burgeoning river of gender discourse with its several tributary streams of inquiry — scientific, feminist, biblical — and waits to see who will receive her.

Shlain is a laparoscopic surgeon by occupation, a man admittedly fascinated by the human body from its biologic beginnings on the hominid phylum, through its mutations, adaptations and seeming mal-adaptations. Shlain is also a man on a mission, a mission shared by other researchers asking hard questions about the miasmic minefield of gender relations. Shlain’s specific question: Why is global society so shot through with misogyny and patriarchy? He observes: “Perusing the daily news confirms that patriarchy and misogyny persist in every major contemporary society.” Virtually simultaneously with Shlain’s launching of Sex Time and Power the United Nations agency for promoting women’s rights [UNIFEM] published a report entitled Not a Minute More, Ending Violence Against Women. It warns that violence to women is a global pandemic. Shlain observes that Mother Nature, whom he variously names Natural Selection and the Red Queen, is known to induce survival adaptations in the eleventh hour, the last minute so to speak.

Shlain attempted to answer the big why of pervasive male violence in his earlier book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. In spite of the book’s great success, a cogent critique by some readers compelled Shlain to go deeper into pre-history to find the currents feeding those “invidious twins”, patriarchy and misogyny. And ‘deeper’ meant going past ancient history, past the veil of myth, past pre-history’s record of art and artifact, right into the hominid phylum to read Gyna and Homo Sapiens story from the beginning of their appearance on the world stage 150,000 years ago.

Shlain’s work pulses with questions informed by his training as a surgeon, his own research into evolutionary theory, and his awe, actually rapture, about planet earth and her inhabitants. One of his delightful digressions is a rhapsodic description of the complementarity of hemoglobin and chlorophyll, the hidden palette tinting the blood of Gyna and Homo Sapiens red while painting their garden green.

Like the mythic Parsifal of the book’s defining epigraph Shlain pursues his quest for evolution’s holy grail by seeking to answer a seminal question:‘This bleeding from the womb, what purpose does it serve?’ I.e, what was Mother Nature thinking when She gave Gyna the biological curse [sic] of menstruation? And why, if Mother Nature is interested in the survival of the fittest does She fit the birthing mother with other seeming handicaps, even obstacles, to survival? And if Gyna needs Homo to provision her with necessary dietary iron, why oh why do so many of their adaptations put them at such odds with each other, at cross purposes with the kind of holy family health and harmony necessary for offspring to survive to reproduce themselves, presumably Natural Selection’s ideal outcome for every living species?

Such questions emerge as dark spectres on Shlain’s jaunty tour through the intricate pathways of our bodies and the circuitry of our brains. In order to answer his questions about the primal couple as they evolved beyond their closest primate cousin the Chimpanzee Shlain surveys the theories of experts —paleontologists, evolutionary and molecular biologists, ethologists, paleoanatomists et al —before offering his own theories by way of musings, conjectures, hypotheses, proposals as well as admitted generalizations. Shlain regularly reminds his readers by way of caveats and disclaimers that he is not an expert in the fields of inquiry.

Shlain weaves a strand of Judaeo-Christian commentary into his Darwinian tale of two genders. Hebrew prophets, Saints Paul, Jerome, Augustine, Aquinas et al, are lined up and labelled misogynists. The “kind and gentle”Joseph of Nazareth appears separately, somewhat encrypted in a footnote with Mary “history’s most famous single mom.” It will seem somewhat ironic to biblical exegetes that Shlain’s work actually follows a misogynist prophet’s directive to go back the way we came, marking the signposts [evolutionary] along the way, even echoing one of the prophet’s most enigmatic proclamations: that it is the Woman that encircles/surrounds the Man [Jeremiah 31:21-22] . Shlain’s 21st century version is his commentary on the hard scientific data that it is Homo who is derived from Gyna; he is in fact the second sex, contrary to all previous cultural claims to the contrary.

Like the rabbis compensating for the sparseness of the biblical record by storytelling, creating the genre midrash, Shlain compensates for aeons of data gap by writing evolutionary midrash, his imaginative response to the questions generated by the missing behavioural data in the Sapiens Family record. Bones leave a solid record of biological mutations like bipedalism; tracing behavioural mutations is necessarily more speculative. For his midrash, Shlain borrows the biblical names Adam and Eve. He imagines their not-so-mutual musings around ancient campfires as they came to terms with the knowledge of fatherhood — that it was Adam and not some moon beam or water sprite who begat the offspring of Eve. Shlain describes this revelatory event as yet another plus/minus evolutionary trade-off: while paternity was a solution to Adam’s anxiety about his mortality it forced complex modifications in his relationship with Eve. [David Bakan’s And They Took Themselves Wives: The Emergence of Patriarchy in Western Civilization, 1979, traces this trajectory from paternity to patriarchy in the undernarrative of the Hebrew Bible.]

In spite of the fact that Shlain is dead serious about his subject matter, he writes with humour —laughter, he postulates, being an evolutionary mechanism given to the Sapiens family to help counter their understandable existential angst. And Shlain’s highly evolved use of the mammalian adaptation of language qualifies him, in my view, for the title Metaphor Man. He takes dry bones data from the hard sciences and conjures magical metaphors, exuberantly painting perspectives of the Sapiens’ place in space and time, and their relationship with other living creatures.

As Metaphor Man, Shlain takes aim at Weapons Maker Man [his label] and Rape and Pillage Man [my label] with a view to excising this mal-adapted male from the human genome. Presuming success, Shlain’s concluding vision is one of hope. He reminds his reader that when evolutionary pressures brought death to the Unknown Mother threatening the continuation of the hominid line, a new adaptation/creation named Gyna appeared. According to Shlain, our current Sapiens crisis may likewise be the very crucible of a new creation, even a new species. [Reminds of the prophet Jeremiah’s prediction of an adaptation described as a ‘new heart’.] Shlain’s model for this species transformation is the metamorphosis of the rapacious caterpillar into the transcendent butterfly who “flits from flower to flower, partaking of very little, destroying nothing, and inadvertently serves as a pollinator, enabling more flowers to bloom.” [See also Trina Paulus, Hope for the Flowers, 1978— different genre, same transcendent theme.]

Sex Time and Power is a book for the mind and the heart, actually the mind/heart. Those whose minds are tightly tethered to scientific model and methodology may find fault with Shlain’s quixotic Darwinian extravaganza; but those whose hearts are in tune with Shlain’s will celebrate his quantum leap over the threatening brink. And Parsifal/Shlain’s witty version of Her-story will no doubt give Gyna sapiens some timely cosmic relief, and invite her to join him in dreaming the impossible dream...