The menstrual sex-strike theory of cultural origins
It is now more than twenty years since Chris Knight (1987) first presented his paradigm-shifting theory of how and why the ‘human revolution’ occurred – and had to occur – in modern humans who, as climates dried under ice age conditions and African rainforests shrank, found themselves surrounded by vast prairies and savannahs, with rich herds of game animals roaming across them. The temptation for male hunters, far from any home base, to eat the best portions of meat at the kill site – as do other social carnivores – called for strong measures from human females, who were paying the heavy metabolic and physical costs of bearing large-brained but helpless children. Even in the modern west, with well stocked supermarkets, a pregnant or lactating woman can lose ten percent of the dry weight of her brain, because developing babies demand dietary lipids for brain growth (Horrobin, 1998). Hence the idea of the menstrual sex strike, designed to force males to deliver their kills entirely into the hands of women for cooking and distribution – a practice common in foraging communities to this day.
Knight’s theory thus finally deposed macho theories of ‘Man the Hunter’, crediting the creation of modern culture to the ‘weaker sex’, and implying that worldwide “rule of women” myths had historical substance. The same myths tell of a male counter-revolution, whereby men seized control of female powers – such as sacred flutes and synchronized menstruation – so accounting for the universal patriarchy that we find in the world today, and secret rituals in which men menstruate in the “proper” way – which is synchronously – whilst women are prevented from doing so by menstrual seclusion and innumerable taboos against blood. Knight was probably the first to point out that two crucial blood taboos are metaphorical equivalents: the hunters’ own-kill rule and the incest taboo both mean: Never eat your own meat.
The sex-strike theory holds that “symbolic culture” originated in ritual displays by synchronously menstruating women, who thus signalled to men “no sex until you bring the meat home”. In the absence of language, the message would have to be conveyed by pantomime, inverting biological mating signals. Knight suggests that this would require the menstruating women to mimic game animals whilst brandishing male hunting weapons – which is taboo for women among contemporary hunting societies. The reversed signals would mean, in effect, “Wrong time, wrong gender, wrong species”.
The theory, though contentious, makes coherent sense of previously intractable and disparate ethnographic data – including dual moiety Kinship systems, economic systems, taboos, the anti-structural character of ritual, the inversions of ontological intuitions evident in animistic beliefs, and the curious fact that human males, unlike male chimpanzees, do indeed “bring the meat home”.
Since an estimated 90% of all language communities have not yet been studied by anthropologists, the theory is also testable: it makes specific predictions of what can and cannot be found in human cultures, and these could potentially be falsified as ethnographic investigations progress. A logical corollary of the theory, pointed out by Camilla Power and researched by Ian Watts (based on the fact that women who spend most of their fertile years being pregnant or breast-feeding seldom menstruate), predicts that evidence for the ‘big bang’ origin of human culture (as theorized by Knight) will be characterized by a significant increase in the use of red pigments (sham menstrual blood). A tenfold increase in the use of red ochre and haematite has since been confirmed in South Africa around 110 thousand years ago (Watts, 1998, 1999, in press a, b; Knight, in press; Knight, Power & Watts, 1995). This is consistent with dates for cultural origins inferred from genetic and linguistic analyses (Harpending et al., 1993; Nei & Roychoudhury, 1993; Cavalli-Sforza et al., 1988).
Based on an extract from Whitehead, C. (2008) ‘The human revolution: editorial Introduction to“Honest fakes and language origins” by Chris Knight’ Journal of Consciousness Studies,15 (10-11), courtesy of Imprint Academic.
Post-industrial societies are of course organized along different lines from segmental societies. But they operate on similar principles. Emil Durkheim (1912) argued that all human societies depend on “collective representations” that have meaningful existence only because we agree that they do – such as customs, money, religion, cosmology, language, games, laws, and artistic genres. Such representations carry (in Durkheim’s view) a moral force. They shape all social action, and they require adherence without prior examination. Pierre Bourdieu (1972) likewise emphasized the way any society’s world-view is underpinned by commonsensical assumptions which are “taken for granted” and never critically examined (even when they are self-contradictory, as noted above). Thomas Kuhn (1962) demonstrated how true this is even of scientific world-views.
Collective representations depend on collective faith but that does not mean that they are imaginary. They exert real effects and are instrumental in the functioning of human societies. But if public faith in them should collapse – as happened to the German mark following World War 1 – their instrumental efficacy also crashes.
Marx and Engels (1846) proposed the theory of historical materialism according to which we create ourselves through “the forces and relations of production” [contra social mirror theory ]. This economic base leads to class conflict and supports an ideological superstructure (politics, law, religion, etc). The ideology of any society is always the ideology of “the ruling classes” and serves to legitimate inequalities of wealth, making them appear natural, inevitable, and right. This is what Marx meant by “false consciousness”. The need to conceal the inequitable functioning of society leads to false perceptions of self, other, and world. Social inequity, of course, is created by economic processes – as Mauss observed, it is the function of competitive economic systems to create inequalities of power – the “creation and destruction of social persons”.
The views of Marx, along with those of Freud, have been dubbed “the school of suspicion”, as opposed to “the school of truth” represented by Durkheim and Turner (though both schools exemplify “normal camera theories” – holding that collective representations stand for social realities which are misperceived as, for example, gods and spirits – see "the anthropological other ) Durkheim (1912) maintained that culture and language must have originated in ritual pantomime, and that, in segmental societies, ritual (and not economic exchange) is the primary means of transforming human beings into social persons. This is still the mainstream view in European social anthropology [[ see also language origins ]. As Turner (1982) observed, initiation rituals “make indelible marks on minds and bodies”. Turner pointed out the parallel between ritual and childhood make-believe – both create a “decoupled” world in which the normal rules of everyday life are suspended or inverted. He referred to this melting-pot character of ritual and pretend play as “anti-structure”, and attributed to it the power to transform individuals and societies [see spiritual experience and the theory of anti-structure ]. In our modern secular world, where ritual has become a leisure option for a minority of citizens, there is no lack of alternative anti-structural processes. All recreation, entertainment, and involvement with the arts, takes people out of their everyday routine, into a “transitional space” where structural change can occur (or the conventional order reinvigorated).
Turner pondered the question of why people claim to find “truth” in ritual, theatre, and the arts – a world of artifice and pretence. He found the answer in anti-structure, which strips away the false masks of everyday social life, allowing a glimpse of the realities concealed by the normative social order. Since the schools of “suspicion” and “truth” both assume the deceptive and make-believe character of everyday life, Durkheim’s collective representations might equally be regarded as “collective deceptions”, not entirely in conflict with Marxian “false consciousness”.
Disembodied perceptions of the self are a universal characteristic of human cultures. Disembodiment begins with sexual modesty, the concealment of the genitals, and the cultural appropriation of bodies using clothes, soap, adornment, cosmetics, tattoos, cicatrization, and mutilation. If intelligent biological beings, however innately social, are to be persuaded to collaborate in an anti-biological system, it is presumably necessary to falsify their perceptions of themselves and the world they live in [see human cooperation ]. In competitive societies there is a further requirement to legitimate social inequity, and no easier way of doing this than by exploiting an established obfuscatory system. Kings and cardinals robe themselves in red because of a numinous power originally ascribed to menstrual blood (Knight, 1991: 424-5).
All human institutions are, by definition, political. They have to maintain and defend their authority and prestige. Consequently, politicians, lawyers, clergymen, doctors, and scientists – among others – have developed their own systems of obfuscation. This is why the use of Latin persisted in law, medicine, and religion, long after it had outlived its usefulness in the rest of European society.
Collective deceptions in western science
The development of a scientific worldview from a perspectival one replaced one kind of disembodiment with another. Where perspectivism denies substance to bodies, western science denies sentience and sociality – though things seem to be changing for the better since the advent of the social brain concept and the science of consciousness. There are at least five important collective deceptions which are still influential in western science: physicalism, cognitivism, individualism, logocentrism, and genocentrism.
Physicalism assumes that the universe is a closed system which can, at least in principle, be entirely explained physically – which means without reference to consciousness – and in which consciousness cannot exert causal effects without violating conservation laws (Dennett, 1991) or the principle of a closed system from which consciousness by definition is excluded (Chalmers, 1995). If physicalism is valid, then it would be possible, for example, to fully explain how pleasure and pain affect human behaviour without taking into account the fact that they are pleasant and painful. If experiential pain causes us to seek relief, then physicalism is invalidated because consciousness is exerting “physical” effects. Physicalism necessarily involves disembodied self-perceptions because it denies the embodied basis of all knowledge: experiential pleasure, pain, and resistance to muscular effort.
Collective deceptions are always political in origin and physicalism is no exception, Physicalism arose from the political conflict between Enlightenment scientists and the Christian clergy who, until that time, had held a monopoly of the “truth” market (Jordanova, 1980). Physicalism remains the dominant paradigm in science at least partly because materialistic governments have a vested interest in funding materialistic research. Imants Barušs (2008) has conducted questionnaire studies of belief which show that many scientists are “covert transcendentalists” – that is, they do not hold physicalist beliefs but feel obliged to conceal the fact to avoid excommunication from the world of professional science.
The cognoparadigm assumes that we have large brains primarily because we are “intelligent”, that brains are thinking rather than doing organs, and that brains and minds are information processing machines that work like computers. Everyone knows that computers were invented specifically to do the jobs that brains cannot do with speed or accuracy – monotonous reiterative calculations. Human minds and brains, on the other hand, can read multiple layers of social meaning in a nod or a wink while a computer is still struggling to decide whether it is looking at a face or a tennis racket. Computers are built, and brains evolved, for entirely different reasons, and clearly do not work in similar ways.
The circular relationship between cognitive and computer science – one using computer models to understand the brain, the other using computers to model the brain – has led to something known as the “frame problem” (McCarthy & Hayes, 1969) or “symbol grounding problem” (Harnad, 1990). How is it, they ask, that a computer can handle “symbols” with vastly greater speed and accuracy than any brain, but there is no sense in which computers can be said to understand what the symbols mean? If you phone for a pizza it doesn’t matter how intelligent or unintelligent your pizza person is, you will get more or less what you expected. You do not have to specify that the pizza should not be ten miles long, drenched in kerosene, or encased in Teflon. But if you ask a computer to make such simple human decisions the specifications are so incalculably vast that no one can build a big enough machine or live long enough to figure out what all the specifications are (Cisek, 1999).
AI buffs find this problem quite baffling, but the reason why humans do not have to crunch billions of gigabytes to fulfil a pizza order is because we have common sense. We can identify with other human beings and know from our own experience pretty much what they want. We have developed social ways of solving problems. Computers cannot develop common sense because, unlike brains, they do not come in bodies. They don’t fall off sofas and bang their heads; they don’t experience pleasure, pain, or hunger; they don’t devote ten or fifteen years to social play and make-believe; and they don’t care what happens to other computers.
Despite increasing interest in the social brain, disembodied cognocentric thinking persists with the assumption that what brains do is convert stimuli into reactions (Cisek, 1999): the input → processing → output model of cognition (James, 1890: 372). Consequently major aspects of embodied social behaviour – such as dance, pretend play, and representational art – have been largely or totally ignored in social brain research.
Another example of a non-social fiction affecting science is western individualism – which Louis Dumont (1986) defined as the self-contradictory idea of an “essentially asocial moral being”. Non-social individuals in nuclear families living in fenced-off properties represent a political atomization of society. Individualism is a relatively late product of state formation (Turner, 1982) – the outcome of a policy of divide and rule. Nation states have a vested interest in breaking up extended systems of kinship and rival forms of collectivized identity. Lineage clans holding property in common and not regarding land as property at all could scarcely sustain a nation state, a capitalist exchange system, or a world dedicated to insatiable “economic growth”.
Individualism is linked to cognitivism through the conception of persons as stand-alone personal computers. Since 1993 there has been a spate of research attempting to correlate brain size with “intelligence” – where the latter is assessed using entirely asocial measures such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (Whitehead, 2006).
A fourth example of a non-social and disembodied perception is the logoparadigm: the notion that everything that is interesting about the human mind is determined by language (Premack, 1988), that culture is a form of “communication” with “syntax” and “grammar”, and that all such “symbolic” schemes are Platonic abstractions that can be understood in vacuo without reference to real-world experience (cf. Douglas, 1970; Leach, 1976;. Lewis, 1977; Foster & Brandes, 1980, Chomsky, 2005). This is the basis of cognitive and hermeneutic anthropology (“normal camera” and “otherworld” theories - see scientific approaches to religion ), and has led to the idea that language accounted for human brain expansion (Deacon, 1992: contra the the social brain ), and that “symbolic ability” is necessary for pretend play rather than the other way round (Lillard, 2001: see the twin-earth model ).
A fifth is genocentrism – an ideological abuse of Darwinism with the tacit intention of denying the emergent character of human culture and (in some cases) debunking religion. Genocentrism is the un-Darwinian belief that the prime mover in evolution is the selfish gene, and that biological theories can be tested inside a computer without reference to embodied organisms with proximal mechanisms. The prime mover in legitimate Darwinian theory is environmental threat. In the absence of threat, “copying errors” (i.e. random genetic mutations) tend to get weeded out and natural selection is more likely to resist evolutionary change. And once you get adaptations that allow behaviour to transcend simple genetic determination – such as central nervous systems – then you get new kinds of evolution. Behavioural change, not genetic change, becomes the primary response to threat. Animals do not evolve carnivore teeth and then decide it might be a good idea to eat meat. The behavioural change has to come first, and only then will natural selection adapt the animal to the change.
Genocentric thinkers, such as selfish-gene biologists [ see human evolution ] and “black box” evolutionary psychologists [ see modularity theories ] seem to have forgotten why brains evolved – namely, for doing things (thinking comes later) and because behavioural adaptation is immediate and non-random, i.e. vastly superior to genetic adaptation. The earth’s history has been marked by a succession of catastrophic environmental shifts, which resulted in mass extinctions of species and even entire genera, families, and higher taxa. These commonly occur at the end of geological epochs and largely define them (Young, 1981). For example, around 50% of all animal families disappeared at the end of the Cambrian and Permian. Genetic adaptation is simply not fast enough to cope with major change – the survivors are the ones that happen to have appropriate genes available at the time.
Genocentrism is at its worst when the idea of selfish genes gets applied to cultural evolution. Steven Pinker (1994), for example, believes that language evolved by gradual genetic change, even though there are strong anthropological and linguistic reasons for rejecting that idea [ see language origins ]. Pinker (1997) also thinks that religion is a ‘spandrel’, i.e. the non-adaptive side-effect of something else which did evolve as a genetic adaptation. Richard Dawkins (1989), on the other hand, acknowledges that much human behaviour (such as the chastity of priests) appears to be anti-biological and could not have evolved genetically, but infers that religious practices and beliefs must be “parasitic memes” propagating themselves at the genetic expense of their human hosts. Dawkins is not well informed on the anthropology of religion, otherwise he would know that many of his views were rejected almost a hundred years ago. For example, his idea of religion as bad science – an ill-informed attempt to explain the inexplicable – was a central tenet of British Intellectualism in the late 19th century. This simply did not stand up to ethnographic data, and cannot be true if ritual is a prerequisite for language [ see language origins ]. Malinowski’s idea that religion was a response to individual needs (such as the fear of death) also succumbed to contrary evidence and the realization that emergent social orders transcend psychological causality. As Radcliffe-Brown (1914) pointed out at the time, religion could be argued to cause more anxieties than it relieved. Dawkins notes that many atrocities have been committed in the name of religion, but fails to acknowledge that this is characteristic of political institutions in general. In his rejection of religion, Dawkins discounts the economico-moral bases of generalised human cooperation and the ritual origins of human culture. A religious belief, such as “goodwill to all humankind”, is likely to have long-term survival value precisely because it overthrows the short-sighted “tyranny of selfish genes”.
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