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I just recently read that on May 11, 2009 Leonard Shlain died of brain cancer. Shlain was an author, surgeon, inventor, artist, student and teacher. His writings and lectures covered everything from anthropology to evolution to linguistics, and the man is credited with pioneering surgical techniques, designing houses, and inventing medical tools, as well as being a best selling author. By every account Shlain was a real renaissance man, which is the kind of person that I admire and strive to emulate every moment of the day.
On several occasions I’ve thought of writing a review of his most popular book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, but have never gotten around to it. In it Shlain takes an anthropological- albeit a somewhat casual one (meaning only that his assumptions, methods and conclusions aren’t 100% lock-step with what one would expect from a classically trained or traditional person in the field)- look at historical ties between language, dominate religious and spiritual currents, and the more subtle cultural meme’s of dualistically-oriented paradigms (i.e., ‘masculine’ versus ‘feminine’). Though there’s a lot of really good stuff packed into the book, Shlain’s overall thesis essentially boils down to something like “kinship, agrarian, non-hierarchal, polytheistic cultures which centered around women (as heads of family as well as of state/society/politics) existed for thousands of years and were the norm rather than exception in the cradle of civilization (essentially what we now know as the Middle East and Northern Africa)….” Ok, yes, I’m with you so far. “… and at pretty much the exact moment that written word arrives in each of the distinct cultures and societies of the region (as well as elsewhere throughout the world) we also see a rapid and drastic shift into monotheism, commercially-oriented/urbanized social and economic life, as well as home and social (and economic and political) life centered around men and at the (increasingly and continually for about 5,000 years) expense of woman….” Sure, a fair and accurate enough generalization. “… and so the written word is actually the cause of monotheism and masculine-oriented culture and political strata….” Whoa! what? “… and isn’t a femininely dominated culture better than a masculine-oriented one?” Ok, get a grip now.
As I said, I really like the book, think it is well written, well documented, generally fair and good, but that Shain’s conclusions from the evidence are off-base. The subtle and gross causal elements of human evolution simply cannot be reduced to something so simplistic; learning to read and write did not transform human society from Goddess-worshiping polytheists to God-worshiping monotheists. That these events happened at the same time in the same places is certainly an interesting note about human consciousness evolution; but says nothing about causation.
Towards the end of the book Shlain makes a very interesting observation though: in lock-step with what is widely seen as the beginning of the withering away of the masculine paradigm during the last half of the Twentieth Century and continuing today, Shlain notes the advent of television as a stark and drastic re-emergence of non-linear, image-based (and thus femininely rather than masculinely oriented) communication. Whereas every aspect of reading and writing reinforces the left, linear, rationalistic and “masculine” development of our brains, image-based communication (as well as audio communication such as radio and the transmission of sound through recordings) rely heavily on the right, non-linear, emotive and “feminine” aspects of human consciousness. So for all you hippies out there: TV actually reinforces and helps bring about your pagan Goddess-worshiping poly-everything culture, it doesn’t make you a mindless slave to the man!
Regardless of any of this though, Shlain was a very intelligent person who followed his passions and curiosities- two traits that we would all do well to emulate. Here’s to life lived at it’s fullest- cheers.
This one comes with a tip of my hat over to Pharyngula. The first thing is actually “Monkey Religion”:
And then there’s a really great, funny and did I say great questionnaire for you all to take, a sort of Religion 101 Final Exam, that includes metaphysical things to ponder such as this:
You are the incarnated Son of the all-powerful and all-loving Creator of the universe. What would be a good way to demonstrate your compassion and power?
- Cure cancer forever
- Cause all the earth’s deserts to bloom with food crops
- Unite the world with a common language and an end to poverty
- Conjure up a jug of wine and follow it up by walking on water