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Sex, Time and Power: How Women’s Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution
Leonard Shlain
New York: Penguin, 2003.
$16.00, 436 pages, ISBN 0-14-2000467-7.

Amélie Moisy
Université Paris 12


Although a bit tedious, Leonard Shlain’s Sex, Time and Power: How Women’s Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution is not an overly taxing book; nor was it intended to be. The author, a California surgeon who specialises in laparoscopy and teaches at UCFC, must be long used to explaining his work to laymen, and apparently feels that popularising culture is the best way to communicate his interest in art—and women as well—if the synopses of his two previous works, Art & Physics and The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, are anything to go by (they can be accessed on Shlain’s web site, <>). That his books have become “award winning bestsellers” is proof that his ideas, thus presented, have caught the public’s interest. The pictures of a pubic-hair-less naked maiden on the front and back covers of his opus on evolution, Sex, Time and Power, cannot have hurt sales, either. At any rate, whatever enthusiasms Shlain may put across, Sex, Time and Power has little literary merit. Whether it is scientifically sound is another question, one best answered by the many anthropologists Shlain cites as sources, but it is not an entirely convincing work.

According to Shlain, the book’s strongest point is the concatenation of ideas behind it—his “fresh insights” [xv] that women’s sexuality shaped human evolution, and that we have become the most advanced species because our females do not go into heat, or oestrus. His thesis, as outlined at the back of the book, is the following:

[150,000 years ago], the narrowness of the newly bipedal human female’s pelvis and the increasing size of infants’ heads precipitated a crisis for the species; a drastic adaptation was needed to save our ancestors from extinction. Consequently, a new species—Homo sapiens—emerged through natural selection in which the female reproductive system was reconfigured by eliminating seasonal mating and synchronizing menses with the lunar cycles.

One step is overlooked in this summary: women learned to say “no” to sex if so inclined; an essential point, since what Shlain calls “original choice” is the basis of human civilisations, in his view.

But [the new system], while allowing women to rise above their primate relatives, robbed them of iron through menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation. [Ancient men faced difficult questions] with the newly evolved women, including how to seduce a sexually liberated female and how to satisfy her intense need for iron. It was through men’s attempts to meet these challenges […] that human culture somersaulted forward; the invention of language afforded nuance to mating rituals; improved hunting techniques provided more varied and rewarding game.
However, female sexual independence itself had far-ranging repercussions. [W]omen’s menses led to an understanding of time, and […] that in turn inspired humans to cultivate religion, art, and humor. In addition, […] men transformed their communities into patriarchal societies based on long-term, monogamous pair bonds, and […] women’s contributions within those societies were devalued through time. [Readers (sic) Guide, 2-3]

Admittedly, in establishing all of these connections, Shlain provides much food for thought.

For a start, he reminds us that our earth is wonderful, that “Mother Nature is spectacularly elegant” [39], that the selective process of evolution is a clever piece of work, and that hominids (Australopithecus afarensis, Homo habilis, Homo erectus…) are invariably fascinating. Focusing on Homo and “Gynasapiens, Shlain caters to our curiosity about the human body: we learn that “the drain upon the energy stores of a breast-feeding mother are of the same order of magnitude as the demands made upon an Olympic shot-putter during his rigorous training” [xiii] and that animals have it far easier than we do—“Lionesses never experience a bad hair day” [353]. Moreover, although Shlain often counts in millions of years, he prefers a quasi-synchronic approach to show how Mother Nature perfected a bit of animal flesh over the ages. This makes us feel closer to our early ancestors—“One moment, our distant ancestors were probably lip-smacking and pant-hooting at each other, and the next, two of their descendants were sipping espresso at the Deux Magots” [188]—although Shlain admits that such artifices should be taken with a grain of salt: “Some of the thoughts I will attribute to my fictitious character [Stone Age Adam] may well have been discovered by many different people over many generations” [290]. And the puzzlement Shlain sometimes expresses at Mother Nature’s choosing our species to rule the planet rightly draws attention to issues such as pollution, violence, and war.

But the central question of the book is why “Since Eve bit into the apple, women often have been portrayed as wicked, weak, needy or inferior” [Readers Guide, 2]. And that is indeed a stumper. So it is nice of Shlain to coin the phrase “Gyna Sapiens” to indicate Stone Age women, as opposed to men (Man remains Homo sapiens). Back then, he hypothesises, they must have been more knowledgeable about their own bodies than their men were, though today’s iron deficient young mums may languish in ignorance [xii]. Shlain believes that a Gyna sapiens discovered calendar time as she pieced together the facts of reproduction, thereby paving the way for mankind’s “three grand transformative insights—sex causes babies, everyone’s going to die, and [children] ensure immortality” [349].

Schlain’s analyses of how our perception of time shaped human culture and art, and his definition of humour, are also interesting. Although irrational beliefs like religion did little to relieve the fear of dying, the “now eyes-wide-open-with-fear hominid” [281] found he could live on in art: “As poet Emily Dickinson wrote, ‘When this you see, remember me’” [286]. And luckily, a perception of the logical enabled us to find relief in unexpected cause-and-effect conjunctions: “Behind the door leading to irony, absurdity lies in wait, ready to leap out and startle us into laughing aloud” [281]. Yet Shlain’s reflections on these matters are as short as they are sweet: he dispatches art in a single paragraph [286] and humour in one page [281], perhaps because these subjects have been studied at length by artists, historians, philosophers and analysts over the ages, and, one presumes, by Shlain himself in Art and Physics.

In fact, many of the more impressive or amusing aspects of Sex, Time and Power were more impressive or amusing elsewhere, as well: in J.H. Rosny’s La Guerre du Feu or Roy Lewis’s What We Did To Father, for instance. The near-synchronic approach adopted by Lewis, who knew when to stop, produces a more sustained humour than does the random citing with which Shlain fleshes out his line of reasoning over 370-odd pages of text. Granted, Shlain’s very randomness and some of the curious bits of information in Sex, Time and Power may appeal to some readers (one can only hope that allusions to the debated Aquatic Ape Theory [104] will not become a standard ice-breaker at parties: “Did you know we evolved from fish?”). On the other hand, inserting so much of everything—comparative heterosexual and homosexual animus/anima charts [232, 234], “the bald-man subterfuge” [253]—probably detracts from the thesis of the book, and the dubious “facts” that Shlain marshals actually cast doubt on the accuracy of the information concerning evolution. While admitting that he is not an expert in “anthropology, primatology, evolutionary biology, and archeology” [xv], Shlain suggests he is as qualified as the next scientist to explore the subject of mankind, for—an epigraphic quote reminds us—“The reconstruction of evolutionary history is better regarded as a game than as a science” [3]. This raises the question of who is supposed to take Sex, Time and Power seriously.

The age, ethnic group, education level or creed of the reader Shlain targets in Sex, Time and Power are difficult to determine. Certain factors (Caucasian Adam and Eve, blond beauty as an ideal) point to a white readership; the book’s otherwise undiscriminating universality would be a good thing, were it not that it is used as a textbook at university level [Readers Guide 5]. Recent high school graduates might well be put off by the italics, rhetoric questions and exclamation marks screaming out at them in Believe-It-Or-Not style: “A contemporary human female will lose, on average, forty quarts of blood during her menses” [26]. Older readers might be surprised that allusions to a deus ex machina [xvi] or a Rube Goldberg arrangement [193] should require footnotes these days, but not “to ford a linguistic Rubicon” [187]. And it is usually food, not intellectual fodder, that is served with the injunction “Enjoy” [xix].

One also has to negotiate the usual modern publication clutter around the text—besides a preface, acknowledgements, epigraph, epilogue, notes, bibliography, credits and a (very useful) index, there is an introduction at the end of the book, praise for the book, an interview of the author and some questions for discussion. These aids sometimes make it difficult to remember where one read a specific passage, and it is probably a bad sign that one should need to turn to the final summary of the text [supra] so often. Yet the poor construction seems to be intentional: a linear narrative would be non-mimetic, Shlain argues, for it could not render the “ongoing, simultaneous feedback loops” in nature [xvii]. The problem is not just that one tends to forget what came before as one reads along, but that the demonstration is often just boring because its elements are so scattered. Because Shlain believes that “Only after all the pieces of the puzzle have been identified can we begin to see how they all fit together [52], he spoils the fun of discovering fire: “Imagine that you are a member of a band of Homo sapiens stepping out in the Pleistocene morning 150,000 years ago” [119], a pleasant enough fancy, is followed by page upon page on digestive enzymes, glucose, proteins, amino acids, fat, cholesterol, iron and cellulose [121-29], which distract from an appreciation of the point the author intended to make: “A man who could provide a woman with a diet containing the fattiest meat won her heart over someone bearing a sling filled with kumquats and papaya” [129]. Here, as elsewhere, when Shlain’s conclusions are restated, the reader may feel he has been taken in (“I read all that and it only boils down to this?”). Shlain himself is aware that Sex, Time and Power is not a compulsive read: for the first half of the book, we are regularly assured that if we just wait until Chapter 13, everything will fall neatly into place; but even after a female discovers time in Chapter 13, the book suffers from its diffusion.

Perhaps Shlain deserves respect for not digging too deeply into dirty-thrill bestseller ore. But it is particularly disheartening that Chapter 7, the chapter on Her Climax / His Climax, should leave (at least two) readers yawning. Readers impressed by Desmond Morris’s à propos statistics and explicit photos on all manner of human intercourse will probably find Shlain’s references and artistic illustrations tame.

Other readers might see things differently. A vegetarian might take Shlain to task for not questioning the meat-worship upon which he says patriarchy is founded. At the risk of seeming inconsistent, this reviewer feels that Shlain’s hotchpotch of a book on Women’s Sexuality leaves far too much unsaid. It would be nice to avoid a cartoon-caricature reaction (the one where one man remarks to another at a cocktail party, “The thing about women is if you make a general statement about one of them, they all take it personally,” and all the women in the room scream out, “I object to that!”). But really.

Shlain, who grew up feeling that “[his] destiny was to become a psychoanalyst,” implicitly and explicitly [139-40] posits that girls are not interested in sex per se. Not just Freud, but any eight- to ten-year-old girl might tell him otherwise, so that even the youngest female readers might doubt Shlain’s authority on other points. The ravages of testosterone, for example—can’t live with it, can’t live without it. It drives men crazy but allows women to become their true selves in menopause, when they can wield power as “crones” [95]. It is true that marriageable young women the world over have found it difficult to diverge from traditional roles, and a few lines at the end on changing men, proving that hormones aren’t everything, may give us all hope. But an ambiguity of purpose runs through Sex, Time and Power, and it is not simply due to the author’s stylistic or lexical inadequacies.

“Women’s Sexuality” is more than the reproductive process Shlain is primarily concerned with. “The reward [women got for risking their lives] was orgasm”—with their partners, Shlain implies [76-77]; but men, he makes it clear, were designed to masturbate copiously through life, as well as sire children. Granted, a man’s penis is “an ingenious adaptation—ask any man” [221], but perhaps male readers would profit from greater exposure to one aspect of women’s sexuality that women find ingenious. Sex, Time and Power: How Women’s Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution contains 1.5 references to a woman’s clitoris—to wit, it may have been one of Mother Nature’s happier mistakes; and boys have one before they grow a penis [79, 228]. No indication of its whereabouts is provided, and it disappears altogether as Shlain tries to locate the elusive G-spot [78-82]. Not altogether surprisingly, the book contains more on aphids than on female genital mutilation (one sentence) [359].

If one puts aside expectations founded on the title of a book on how women have shaped our existence, and accepts Shlain’s argument that “In this work I have tried to move the conversation away from an emphasis on culture and more toward the realm of genetics and evolution” [360], an entire chapter on the causes and consequences of male circumcision (women were behind it) is far too long a digression. And why conclude a conversation on genetics and evolution with a cultural scenario that goes something like this: Loss of oestrus made love possible; love is the best thing in our lives; love is woman’s power, for which she sacrificed all else willingly? Shlain glosses over the fact that women are not allowed to be what genetics and evolution programmed them to be. What of the menstruating girls “confined for four years in small darkened cages […] not allowed to touch the ground” [138]? In his text, Shlain devotes one 7.5-line paragraph to examples of repression of women [359]. Conversely (Shlain likes to give counter-examples, for honesty's sake, when it comes to hyenas or cabbages), it would have been refreshing to read of the few examples of matriarchal societies, insignificant as they may be [Readers Guide 7], and of the 15% contemporary cultures in the world that remain matrilineal [94]. In a “Women’s studies” textbook [Penguin reference, back cover], that sort of little-known information is sadly lacking.

Shlain has tried to do a lot, perhaps too much. But Sex, Time and Power is not as entertaining nor as convincing as its author hopes it is. Nevertheless, perhaps some of the information it contains will make readers understand that cultural roles are one part spurious. The questions at end of book may further personal reflections or fuel exchanges with peers; it is even possible to discuss them with Shlain himself, either over the web (e-mail address in book and site) or in person: he is scheduled to speak at the Mediterranean American International School in Paris on November 2-5 2005—should one enjoy debate for debate’s sake.

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