Friday, 3 December 2010

Friday Feminist - Elaine Morgan (2)

Cross posted

The longer I went on reading his own books about himself, the more I longed to find a volume that would begin: ‘When the first ancestor of the human race descended from the trees, she had not yet developed the mighty brain that was to distinguish her so sharply from all other species…'

Of course, she was no more the first ancestor than he was — but she was no less the first ancestor, either. She was there all along, contributing half the genes to each succeeding generation. Most of the books forget about her for most of the time. They drag her onstage rather suddenly for the obligatory chapter on Sex and Reproduction, and then say: ‘All right, love, you can go now,’ while they get on with the real meaty stuff about the Mighty Hunter with his lovely new weapons and his lovely new straight legs racing across the Pleistocene plains. Any modifications in her morphology are taken to be imitations of the Hunter’s evolution, or else designed solely for his delectation.

Elaine Morgan, The Descent of Woman, 1972


Psycho Milt said...

That was a great book. It's a long time since I read it, but it was a complete revelation at the time. Haven't been able to look at standard accounts of human origins the same way since, and she leaves you with an excellent framework for finding all the self-serving crap men come up with for "evolutionary psychology."

Deborah said...

That was my reaction to it too, PM. It was, and still is, such a refreshing book to read.

tussock said...

But (allow me to miss teh point a moment) ... no one was the first anything. There are no lines in the sand, nor any special individuals across the history of evolution.

All sorts of mutations live on in the gene pool, and don't do much of anything to the species until there's some sustained selective culling applied to a population.

And yes, all the girls are just as vital to the carrying and distribution of genetic variation as all the boys are.

Hugh said...

Tussock, she acknowledges that in the first sentence of the second paragraph.

The point is that in framing the "first ancestor" consistently as a man, people who write about him are contributing not just to a misunderstanding of genetics, which I'd call relatively harmless, but a misunderstanding of gender, which is extremely harmful.

Deborah said...

Here's another bit from the same chapter of The Descent of Woman that you might all enjoy:

The trouble with specialists is that they tend to think in grooves. From time to time something happens to shake them out of that groove. Robert Ardrey tells how such enlightenment came to Dr Kenneth Oakley when the first Australopithecus remains had been unearthed in Africa: ‘The answer flashed without warning in his own large-domed brain. “Of course we believed that the big brain came first! We assumed that the first man was an Englishman!” ‘ Neither he, nor Ardrey in relating the incident, noticed that he was still making an equally unconscious,, equally unwarrantable assumption. One of these days an evolutionist is going to strike a palm against his large-domed head and cry: ‘Of course! We assumed the first human being was a man!’

(Emphasis mine.)