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Men as the human default: an introduction to Invisible Women

Published: 27th March, 2020 at 17:17
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Seeing men as the human default is fundamental to the structure of human society, says journalist Caroline Criado Perez in her book, Invisible Women. Read here an extract from the title, free.

The Science Focus Book Club are reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez this month. To get you started, Vintage have made the introduction and first two chapters of Caroline's book available, for free, to book club members.


Introduction: The Default Male

Seeing men as the human default is fundamental to the structure of human society. It’s an old habit and it runs deep – as deep as theories of human evolution itself. In the fourth century BC Aristotle was already baldly articulating male default as unarguable fact: ‘The first departure from type is indeed that the offspring should become female instead of male’, he wrote in his biological treatise On the Generation of Animals. (He did allow that this aberration was, however, ‘a natural necessity’.)

Over two thousand years later, in 1966, the University of Chicago held a symposium on primitive hunter-gatherer societies. It was called ‘Man the Hunter’. Over seventy-five social anthropologists from around the world gathered to debate the centrality of hunting to human evolution and development. The consensus was that it is pretty central. ‘The biology, psychology, and customs that separate us from the apes – all these we owe to the hunters of time past’, claimed one of the papers published in the resulting book. Which is all very well, only, as feminists pointed out, this theory poses something of a problem for female evolution. Because, as the book made clear, hunting was a male activity. So if ‘our intellect, interests, emotions, and basic social life – all are evolutionary products of the success of hunting adaptation’, what does that mean for women’s humanity? If human evolution is driven by men, are women even human?

In her now classic 1975 essay, ‘Woman the Gatherer’, anthropologist Sally Slocum challenged the primacy of ‘Man the Hunter’. Anthropologists, she argued, ‘search for examples of the behaviour of males and assume that this is sufficient for explanation’. And so she asked a simple question to fill the silence: ‘what were the females doing while the males were out hunting?’ Answer: gathering, weaning, caring for children during ‘longer periods of infant dependency’, all of which would similarly have required cooperation. In the context of this knowledge, the ‘conclusion that the basic human adaptation was the desire of males to hunt and kill,’ objects Slocum, ‘gives too much importance to aggression, which is after all only one factor of human life.’

Slocum made her critique over forty years ago now, but the male bias in evolutionary theory persists. ‘Humans evolved to have an instinct for deadly violence, researchers find’, read a 2016 headline in the Independent. The article reported on an academic paper called ‘The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence’, which claimed to reveal that humans have evolved to be six times more deadly to their own species than the average mammal.

This is no doubt true of our species overall – but the reality of human-on-human lethal violence is that it is overwhelmingly a male occupation: a thirty-year analysis of murder in Sweden found that nine out of ten murders are committed by men. This holds with statistics from other countries, including Australia, the UK and the US. A 2013 UN homicide survey found that 96 per cent of homicide perpetrators worldwide are male. So is it humans who are murderous, or men? And if women aren’t on the whole murdering, what are we to think of female ‘phylogenetics’?

The male-unless-otherwise-indicated approach to research seems to have infected all sorts of ethnographic fields. Cave paintings, for example, are often of game animals and so researchers have assumed they were done by men – the hunters. But new analysis of handprints that appear alongside such paintings in cave sites in France and Spain has suggested that the majority were actually done by women.

Even human bones are not exempt from male-unless-otherwise- indicated thinking. We might think of human skeletons as being objectively either male or female and therefore exempt from male-default thinking. We would be wrong. For over a hundred years, a tenth-century Viking skeleton known as the ‘Birka warrior’ had – despite possessing an apparently female pelvis – been assumed to be male because it was buried alongside a full set of weapons and two sacrificed horses. These grave contents indicated that the occupant had been a warrior – and warrior meant male (archaeologists put the numerous references to female fighters in Viking lore down to ‘mythical embellishments’). But although weapons apparently trump the pelvis when it comes to sex, they don’t trump DNA and in 2017 testing confirmed that these bones did indeed belong to a woman.

The argument didn’t, however, end there. It just shifted.The bones might have been mixed up; there might be other reasons a female body was buried with these items. Naysaying scholars might have a point on both counts (although based on the layout of the grave contents the original authors dismiss these criticisms). But the resistance is nevertheless revealing, particularly since male skeletons in similar circumstances ‘are not questioned in the same way’. Indeed, when archaeologists dig up grave sites, they nearly always find more males, which, as noted anthropologist Phillip Walker drily noted in a 1995 book chapter on sexing skulls, is ‘not consistent with what we know about the sex ratios of extant human populations’. And given Viking women could own property, could inherit and could become powerful merchants, is it so impossible that they could have fought too?

After all, these are far from the only female warrior bones that have been discovered. ‘Battle-scarred skeletons of multiple women have been found across the Eurasian steppes from Bulgaria to Mongolia’ wrote Natalie Haynes in the Guardian. For people such as the ancient Scythians, who fought on horseback with bows and arrows, there was no innate male warrior advantage, and DNA testing of skeletons buried with weapons in more than 1,000 Scythian burial mounds from Ukraine to Central Asia have revealed that up to 37 per cent of Scythian women and girls were active warriors.

The extent to which male-unless-otherwise-indicated permeates our thinking may seem less surprising when you realise that it is also embedded in one of the most basic building blocks of society: language itself. Indeed, when Slocum criticised male bias in anthropology, she pointed out that this bias appeared ‘not only in the ways in which the scanty data are interpreted, but in the very language used’. The word ‘man’, she wrote, ‘is used in such an ambiguous fashion that it is impossible to decide whether it refers to males or to the human species in general’. This collapse in meaning led Slocum to suspect that ‘in the minds of many anthropologists, ‘man’, supposedly meaning the human species, is actually exactly synonymous with ‘males’. As we shall see, the evidence suggests that she was probably right.

Download a sampler of Invisible Women, free, and continue reading.

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  1. Head over to Facebook and join our dedicated group
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  4. Send us your questions through Twitter, Facebook or Instagram for Caroline by 20 April
  5. Tune in to a live Q&A session with Caroline and Science Focus on 21 April [details coming soon]

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