Entry Eleven: A Brief History of Sexism

Ingram Valley

Part I: The Valley

This post begins with a mental exercise. I invite those so inclined to play along. I invite everyone else to pretend you have an imagination, and play along anyway. Here goes:

Imagine a valley in the Stone Age. It doesn’t matter where; only that it is vast, wide, and verdant. It exists a hundred thousand years ago, before industry or climate change, before empires and organized armies, even before agriculture. Imagine it possesses a source of fresh, clean water running through it, that it is green and plentiful with edible foods and edible animals grazing on those foods. Imagine the climate is relatively hospitable, that it isn’t prone overmuch to natural disaster, and that it is geographically isolated enough to be left alone, for the most part.

Prime real estate, in other words.

Now imagine that the dominant species in this valley is a weird little primate called human. Our paleolithic ancestors would consider this place an ideal environment. It would possess enough food to be hunted and gathered without depleting the local ecosystem. It would allow a tribe of homo sapiens just enough in the way of resources to maintain a stable population, perhaps as many as a few hundred individuals. It would require, at most, minimal wandering from one end of the valley to the other, a seasonal migration worked out over generations. A properly-sized collection of humanity could eat well, fuck merrily, and suffer no more violence than the occasional conflict-resolution-via-braining-with-antelope-shinbone.

Maxin' and relaxin', circa 100,000 BC
Maxin’ and relaxin’, circa 100,000 BC

Now imagine that, one day, another tribe of humans arrives in the valley.

They are strangers, wanderers from who-the-hell knows where. They speak a funny sounding language, paint their bodies in different colors, and have customs vastly different from those of  the natives. And they too see this valley as an opportunity to live a stable and well-fed life.

At first, the two tribes live in relative peace. The strangers aren’t great enough in number to pose a threat, and the valley contains more than enough land and resources to share. Some of the natives even go so far as to trade the occasional resource with the newcomers. For the most part, however, the two populations maintain a friendly distance and leave one another alone. The stone-age version of “don’t start nothing, won’t be nothing”.

Obviously this doesn’t last. Within a few generations, the more recent tribe’s population has exploded, rivaling the size of the first’s. The region’s plants began to be over-picked. The animal herds are thinning. For the first time in memory, people are going hungry in the valley.

Since cooperation between rival cultures hasn’t been invented yet (or ever), tensions begin to build. The native tribe blames the newcomers, with their distasteful customs and their disrespect of the land. The newcomers become hostile to the natives, whom they see as obviously keeping them from the best territory in the valley. Shamans on both sides become convinced that the spirits are displeased with their rivals, and their respective leaders listen to them, like dipshits. Similar to today’s global conflicts, only with slightly less articulation and slightly more body hair. Slightly.

News media was much slower, though.
News media was much slower, though.

When violence comes, it is explosive, and sudden. Warriors clash en masse, years of mistrust and mutual hatred boiling over in savage conflict. The valley becomes a killing zone, its river flowing with blood mixed in equal portions from both tribes. The population loss is staggering, and the skill of both side’s warriors is effectively even. When the dust settles, there are roughly two hundred people left in each tribe. The humans of this valley have utterly (and perhaps literally) decimated one another.

Sorry if you thought this was going to be a happy story. Also, are you sure you’re reading the right blog?

Anyway, now that you have that in your head, it’s time to pose a question: Going forward from this point, which of these two tribes is more likely to survive?

It is here that we add to our thought experiment. Let us presume that one of the many cultural differences between these two societies lie in their attitudes concerning gender. One of these tribes, it doesn’t matter which, possesses a fairly egalitarian fighting force. Men and women are allowed and even encouraged to share the role of warrior. Therefore the females of the tribe provide nearly as many fighting individuals to their warband as the men do.

Picture unrelated.
Picture unrelated.

The other tribe, by contrast, have a division of labor that’s more familiar to most human societies. The men hunt, and kill. They explore, venture into new territory, and generally spend their time and earn their social status by putting their lives at risk. The women stay home, in safe spaces, and tend to food preparation and the raising of children.

These differences affect the outcome of the war. The egalitarian tribe will lose a far greater percentage of its women than the tribe which only fields men in combat. The results show in the gender ratio of the war’s survivors. The tribe that divided its labor will have a greater number of females left, while the tribe practicing gender equality lose just as many women as they do men.

Given that humans in their fighting prime also tend to be humans most capable of successful reproduction, this presents a distinct problem for the survivors of the gender-equal population. To best illustrate this, and because I’m lazy, we’ll use exaggerated numbers. Suppose the number of sexually fertile and healthy adults on both sides is a hundred individuals. The side that only sent men to war loses more of them, leaving them with a population of ninety-five reproducing females and five males capable of making little humans. On the other side, those numbers are precisely reversed, with ninety-five males of reproductive potency coming home to only five fertile females.

Which tribe has more members added at the end of nine months? Theoretically, the group with more surviving females could have ninety-five new babies and five fathers becoming the patriarchs of a new society, assuming they survive through their inevitable boning exhaustion. The group with five remaining females? They’ll have five new babies, and probably ninety-four dead guys after the infighting has stopped.

Recipe for population explosion.
Recipe for population explosion.

Whom then, do you think our ancestors are?

Obviously, the valley is a caricature, intentionally over-simplified to make a point. The dynamics of human population during prehistory were complex, and the study of them is still a relatively new science. However, it’s pretty well established that a policy of prioritizing female survival over male survival during times of stress is a common strategy in the animal kingdom.

Lions, for example, typically need keep only one male on-hand for reproductive purposes, and any conflict between prides is settled by two males in combat with one another, risking only their own injury. The females pull double duty as hunters (relatively low-risk, compared to combat with another lion) and incubators of the next generation. Mountain gorillas have a similar structure, minus the hunting. Even our closest evolutionary relatives, the chimpanzees, have been observed to follow this rule during their own version of tribal warfare.

Pictured: Honor and glory.
Pictured: Honor and glory.

The list is honestly exhaustive. In populations of mammals too numerous to go into, again and again there are examples of females taking a more survivable role in the social structure, while the males have largely evolved to be disposable. Even on a reproductive level, ten million sperm cells compete like tiny Highlanders, for there can be only one who impregnates the egg. The rest get disposed of as attackers by the female immune system, a fate that actually makes decapitation seem preferable.

Both the practice and result carry into modern times. In virtually every major war, famine, displacement, or any other catastrophic event which can in any way be mitigated by the will of the society suffering through it, men die at higher percentages than women do. It’s certainly true in combat situations, and only slightly less so during situations where death comes due to insufficient resources. This has been a truth noted by anyone paying attention to the question of “who dies during war, etc” since there’s been a “war, etc” to worry about. It’s a truth that has only begun to change in the modern age.

For tens of thousands of years, we human beings were shaped by that valley, or someplace like it. Starvation and conflict were as inevitable as sunrises and seasons, forging us into the types of social animals we are. The imprint is even in our DNA, which possesses a far greater number of contributions from reproducing females than males. Etched into the very structure of both the microscopic and the superorganistic is an evolutionary tendency to preserve that which is female, and sacrifice that which is male. And it is a tendency that we carried right into the second phase of this sordid history: the story of the city.


Part II: The City

Any student of human development is familiar with the next part of the story. The hunters and gatherers learned herding and farming, and humanity would be irrevocably changed.

Now, a much smaller number of humans could more regularly provide food for everyone else, plus surplus. Populations exploded, and the necessity for everyone to spend their time feeding the tribe evaporated. Inactivity and rapid population growth led to specialization of labor, with new needs emerging as surplus and trade became cultural inevitabilities. Math, writing, and social order became duties filled by clerks, scribes, and rulers. Shamans organised and evolved into priests, to give religion a structure that could be taught to thousands by text rather than inefficient oral tradition.

Gone were the days when you were personally acquainted with every member of your tribe. Concepts like “rank” and “position” became social necessities for determining organization among people who would otherwise be strangers. A person’s place in societal strata became a part of their identity as strong or stronger than the civilization they happened to belong to.

The valley was gone. The homo sapien superorganism had evolved the city.

Despite this rapid advance, at least two hundred thousand years of evolutionary pressure was still whispering in the back of humanity’s mind like a creepy uncle. We had developed more intricate concepts about social structure, a more accurate view of the world at large, and the ability to transmit complex ideas from one generation to the next. But still, certain basic principles of the stone age hung stubbornly to our collective consciousness.

As five minutes with any history book will make evident.
As five minutes with any history book will make evident.

The “others”, those tribes that spoke different languages and worshiped different gods, were still the enemy, even when there were no resources to necessarily fight over. Outsiders were rarely to be trusted. Populations should be protected by violence. The lessons of the valley were still ingrained in the builders of the city.

So too, was the value of females. But in this case, a strange and unfortunate evolution took place. Without the egalitarianism of tribal populations, that emergent social stratification began to break along gender lines. At the same time, resources had become something not simply gathered from the fickle environment, but rather produced, cultivated, and managed by design.

Women, their intrinsic value hammered into our heads by ancestral pressure, became commodities. Protecting them meant controlling them. Providing a safe place meant putting them in that place, whether they liked it or not. Slowly, civilization by civilization, new gender identities became common. The disposability of the male became a point of honor and prestige (death by glorious combat). The primary sacred duty of the female became her prison (a woman’s place is in the home).

Over centuries, populations continued to grow, and empires began to weave the world together with long-range travel and trade. The destruction of an entire tribe became a much less common threat (obviously genocides still occurred, but cultural resilience exploded as well). The reasoning for the protection of women was no longer always self-evident. Humanity began to show varying degrees of leniency toward more and more abusive behavior, particularly on the lower levels of social strata. Females had retained the status of a resource while losing major elements of their associated worth, notably autonomy.

Fundamentally, females became property, seen by society at large as at best valuable trophies, at worst as necessary evils kept around only for breeding. Matriarchal or egalitarian cultures, though not unheard of, were few and far between.


This isn’t to say that brave and powerful women never existed in history. Human culture has a respectable collection of Joan of Arcs, Wu Zeitans, and Yaa Asantewaa’s. But the reason those stories are remembered is because they’re rare. Also, I’ve got even money you had to google at least one of those names.


Part III: The Revolution

Agriculture dawned sometime around 12,000 BC. Between then and roughly 1760 AD, humanity had what could best be defined as an “explosive clusterfuck” of a history. Empires rose and fell, repeatedly. Knowledge and innovations were developed, gained, lost, and then rediscovered so often it’s embarrassing. Religions went through several permutations, evolving to better soothe the anxieties of a humanity whose consciousness was expanding at an accelerated rate.

Then came industry.

Beginning with textiles, humanity began to use its recently advanced understanding of mathematics-based sciences (thanks Newton!) to mechanize the production output of… well, everything. Everything we could possibly produce became manufactured on a mass scale. Clothing, food, and weapons became industries where one person could do labor that a dozen or a hundred would have been needed for previously.

If agriculture put the human population on a fast track, the Industrial Revolution strapped a V-8 engine on that fucker and stomped the gas pedal like it had a black widow on it. From a population of hundreds of thousands to millions and billions practically overnight, human beings were taking over the planet in ways no one had been able to imagine before. Empires went global as every remaining corner of the planet started to feel the touch of our grubby little primate hands.

And at the core of it, industry created even more spare time for the common human. Though it may seem odd to think of the 19th century as a period overflowing with leisure hours, you have to remember that this is in comparison to the world before; a world without steam engines and cotton gins. With production maximized in such a fashion, the average human could spend hours in their own pursuits, many of which involved taking time to realize that they might be getting shit on due to their social status.

There's a reason this woman's life overlapped the invention of the cotton gin.
There’s a reason the life of the first feminist overlapped the invention of the cotton gin.

It took some growing pains, but eventually human beings realized they didn’t have to labor from dawn to dusk every day of their lives. So they came up with things like the weekend, the eight-hour workday, and starting your labor career when you’re seventeen instead of goddamn seven years old. Clearly we still live in a world where such things aren’t universal, but that’s where the trend has been going for hundreds of years now, and it shows no signs of abating globally.

As time progressed, these increasing levels of human ease began to trickle downward along the social strata. Workers started to realize they didn’t have to kill themselves quite as much as their bosses demanded. So too did the women of the world start to realize they didn’t have to take quite all the shit their husbands, fathers, or society at large demanded, either. In fits and spurts, the human species was starting to reexamine its gender roles, and it’s a discussion that continues into the modern day. If you’ve spent more than thirty seconds on social media basically ever, you know what I’m talking about.


Part IV: Primal Impulses In The Modern World

If we human beings wanted; if we TRULY wanted, we could create a gender-neutral society with virtually no ill effects at this point. In the Paleolithic, the separation of gender roles was a survival adaptation, and probably a crucial one. After so-called civilization came to be, power still emanated from the marshaling of physical strength and the most valued labor revolved around the same. But as automation makes the physical more irrelevant, even that (somewhat flimsy) excuse for enforced gender roles is collapsing.

For roughly twelve thousand years, we human beings have inordinately stifled the potential contributions of slightly more than half of our own population. It could be argued all day long whether or to what extent any of that was needed for survival. What can be said with certainty is this: At whatever point sexism ceased to be a necessary evil, we passed it.

At the speed of rockets, quite frankly.
At the speed of rockets, quite frankly.

Efficiency, rationality, and basic human dignity are all demanding that our species tap into the unfathomable potential of the female gender. Evolution, however, has never been what one would call a smooth process. Cultural and behavioral evolution is no exception. Hence, some people can’t seem to get these simple truths through their fucking heads. Which brings us, with extensive apologies, to this asshole:

Pictured: America's most punchable face
Pictured: America’s most punchable face

In writing this, the current discussion in my country’s national forum is impossible to ignore. In less than a week, the most powerful nation on this planet will elect its next leader. On one side of this political divide is a capable career woman, as sharp (and yes, as ruthless) as any of her male counterparts. On the other side is a disrespectful, sexist neanderthal who probably would have been at home in that valley I described at the beginning. If a writer constructed this election in a work of fiction, they would be critically crucified for heavy-handed metaphor and lack of sophistication.

But in Donald Trump, we have a perfect avatar for the lingering mentality that our primate brains have such trouble getting over. Because the dark truth is that, when he brags about grabbing women by the pussy and getting away with it because he has power, he’s not joking. He’s not being cute, or humorously vulgar. He’s disturbing people with these kinds of statements for one reason only: they are the absolute truth.

Trump, and so many like him operating within the structure of power, still live in a world where women are commodities. It is the powerful, after all, that are slowest to evolve. They have to be pushed into accepting paradigm changes from the ground up, whether those changes involve eight-hour workdays or the simple recognition that females are human. And Donald, being powerful (or believing he is, which is almost worse), feels entitled to take what he wants when he wants it.

It doesn't help that this attitude takes root in both genders, either.
It doesn’t help that this attitude takes root in both genders, either.

And so here we are in the modern age, all humans waking up, albeit with our traditional lethargy, to the fact that females have a value that’s gone unrecognized for generations. But two hundred thousand years of evolution still whispers in our brains. Twelve thousand years of civilization still demands our loyalty, whether it deserves it or not. Most of us, men and women alike, are as terrified of this change as our ancestors were when their valley was first visited by outsiders.

But the most frightening truth, the one that we stutter and stammer and try to slide around, is the one that we simply have to face if we’re ever going to evolve past this. And that is that this tendency toward female subjugation doesn’t come from our leaders, or one particular culture, or a single philosophy or movement. This so-called “patriarchy”, where it actually has a need to exist, is a symptom at best.

The sexism comes from inside us. It’s part of our “heart and soul”, if you want to be spiritual about it. It lurks in our essence as human beings. It comes from that valley, and our inability to forget the valley even as we were building cities and libraries and factories. It is a part of who we are. We have to see it as something inborn and natural to ever have a chance of fighting it.  Changing it depends on that.

Because this nonsense where we insist that it is somehow enforced from without isn’t getting us anywhere. If we continue under the premise that “this group”, “that organization”, or “whatever culture” is the source of our collective misogyny, then throwback savages like Donald Trump will continue to roam the Earth.

Because the monster, as is so often the case with humanity, lies within.