BOOK REVIEW: Eve's Seed

It is ironic that civilization--which has largely been a masculine enterprise--is so toxic for men. While the feminists may rant about how oppressed women have been all through history, it is men who have been the cannon fodder for "progress." While political advantage has accrued to a small class of men, most of the material advantages have gone to women. When people talk about how women are impoverished in many parts of the world, they leave the question unanswered, "Where are the men?" The answer: For just about every poor woman, there is a dead man underneath her--either literally dead, or socially dead (i.e., so pushed to the margins of society that he doesn't even register as a problem).

I've been doing quite a bit of reading lately about our predicament as men. One book in particular, Eve's Seed, by Robert McElvaine has gotten me thinking. The gist of the book is that with the coming of agriculture (most likely the invention of women), human beings were cast out of a hunter-gatherer Eden that characterized 95% of human existence. The result was devastating for men because we lost our reason for being--the old male roles of hunter and protector--became obsolete in the increasingly settled and "urbanized" world brought by agriculture.

The problem for us men is that on a biological level, we just are not as essential individually as women. This is so in two ways. First, biology equips women with a substantial role--bearer and nurser of offspring--that men just do not have. In the reproductive process, the male role is simply a momentary squirt (if I may put it crudely). Motherhood is a given, women's importance in human society is guaranteed by nature. Fatherhood--if it is to be anything beyond the transitory role of inseminator--is a social or cultural construct. So our sense of importance to the human species is much more precarious. Second, to keep the species going, you don't need a whole lot of men around. A relative handful can do the job. On the other hand, every female counts. That's just the arithmetic of reproduction. So, as the author explains, because there are some things men cannot do, men have set about making sure that there are some things woman may not do.

The book does a fairly good job of addressing how the first dilemma has preoccupied men since the dawn of agriculture. The author posits that history/ civilization has been men's way of compensating for the loss of their old roles. His view though, is that men have pretty much botched the job, instituting a patriarchal system that has oppressed women and denigrated the feminine. Although he is somewhat sympathetic to men's plight, it's pretty clear that, to the author, men are "the problem." It seems, after reading this book, that our male "biogram" is almost pathologically maladapted to the human-made environment that has evolved since we left our hunter-gatherer days.

The author's solutions are not very helpful, though. In a nutshell, he argues that we must not see male and female as "polar opposites"; but rather as continuum with men and women overlapping each other in various traits. According to McElvaine, the polar opposite concept of the sexes is the root cause of the "male problem": men seeing themselves as "notawoman" (and therefore superior) so as to compensate for their unconscious fear that women really are superior. The result is that men ceaselessly seek to prove the impossible in ways that exaggerate the masculine at the expense of the feminine. In the author's view, we should not speak of the "opposite' sex, but the "somewhat different" sex. He also states the we must realize that men and women have equally essential roles to play in procreation (although the man's is smaller-sorry guys, we'll just have to live with that!). Apparently men just have to surrender. Although the author acknowledges that there is a limit to how far human beings can adapt to changing circumstances, it never occurs to him that perhaps we need to get control of circumstances so that human beings can create an environment conducive to our mental health.

Basically, McElvaine is saying that men have to stop overcompensating for their insecurity (he argues that it has been mostly insecure men who have driven history); to stop seeing women and the feminine as something to fear and keep down; and to stop seeing the roles of men and women as a zero-sum game. Human beings evolved biologically in a hunter-gatherer environment. Humans have had to invent social values to help us adapt to the man-made environment which we find ourselves in. It has sort of worked for a while. But in the last 500 years, the traditional (patriarchal) values that have helped men accommodate to civilization, have been superseded by a second upheaval: the rise of scientific-industrial-marketplace society (which has replaced agriculturally based civilization). So humanity has to come up with new values, which must help us adapt to an environment which is even more inhospitable to human nature.

While Eve's Seed offers some compelling analysis, it is unsatisfying. The problem is he never addresses men's second dilemma (you don't need as many men as women for the species to continue)--which I believe is even more fundamental than the first. Every man has to grapple with an existential problem which women do not: "why am I here?" Because, if a man (or a society on behalf of men) cannot adequately answer this problem, a man (and men) are lost. This is what accounts for the supposedly "fragile" male ego: if I cannot perform as a man (i.e. live up to my socially constructed role as provider, protector, and penetrator (sexual potency)) then I'm useless and therefore, disposable. No woman has ever had to face that. What happened at the dawn of history, and is happening again, is that men as a sex are being pushed out of their roles. Everything in modern culture is saying that men are not necessary; in fact, they are disposable. And society wonders why men are angry? If men as men do not have a unique and significant role to play, then we have NO role to play; we are superfluous; we are nothing. This is a terrifying position to be in. It is bad enough for an individual man to feel such insecurity; but when our whole sex is reduced to such perilous impermanence, masculine insecurity becomes epidemic. And so, men lash out at the only target in front of them-women. Feminists have never been able to figure out that when men are humiliated, women suffer too.

The book is unsatisfying on some other grounds as well. His view of religion is strictly historical, so the theological and spiritual layers of meaning are pretty much left untouched. To simply say, as McElvaine does, that the advent of male monotheism (one male God) was one of the biggest disasters for humanity, is to reduce several thousand years of religious thought and belief to simple misogyny. Religion is not simply a non-secular political ideology (although it has at times been used as that). The result of McElvaine's reductionist treatment of religion is that his analysis of human social evolution misses much of a significant factor: the human search for meaning. He also leaves out the contribution of Jungian psychology and the role of archetypes in human development. Thus, while he understands the psychological basis of the male reaction to the agricultural revolution, he leaves his analysis hanging there. It is possible to view history as evolving consciousness, as well as defensive political reaction to economic upheavals.

We are not just generic human individuals (although increasingly this is what our culture is pushing us towards). We are male OR female. While "masculine" and "feminine" may occupy a spectrum, male and female do not. As biological creatures, this fact informs the very basis of our human nature. Part of how one defines oneself is through drawing boundaries (which men have been much better at than women). Part of knowing who I am is knowing who or what I am NOT. So to some degree, the "notawoman" concept which the author of Eve's Seed finds so distressing, will never completely disappear. Margaret Mead has said that for men ever to be at peace in civilization, society must find roles for men to contribute in valuable ways that are satisfying to their innate maleness.

Here are my suggestions how we men can redeem our place in society. First, men MUST take ownership of their hearts--their feelings, passions, emotions. For too long we have let ourselves be dependent on women in this area. As men do this they will discover that there is a genuinely masculine heart that is at the core of our unique male selves. When men realize THAT, then perhaps we won't be so dependent on "doing manly things" to give us a sense of our manly worth--it will be built in. When we go from a performance based concept of manhood to an intrinsic based concept (I am manly because that is how I am made, as opposed to I am manly because this is what I do), our sense of insecurity will drop to more manageable proportions. A second result of owning our masculine hearts is that we will not be so dependent on approval from women--being more secure we won't need to either put them down or beg their favors. Another result of that will be a rediscovery of male bonding, that men need each other as much as they need women.

Second, THE ROLE that men have in human culture is that of FATHER (not Patriarch). We are already witnessing the horrendous effects of fatherlessness in America (and elsewhere). There may be a blessing in disguise in this, namely, that we finally realize how essential men are to children and human society. Fatherhood is what makes humans different from all other primate species. It is a uniquely human adaptation. Women cannot father--and I don't mean just the momentary ejaculation of sperm. I mean the whole nine yards: offering masculine guidance and perspective on life, pushing our young toward independence, competency and responsibility; being the provider of physical play and excitement; infusing life with passion, etc. So if we no longer need to be initiated into the hunter role, we men still need to be initiated into the father role. Fatherhood is the focal point of manhood. Even if a man does not sire any children, he can father in all sorts of ways outside the nuclear family: coach, teacher, mentor, elder, community leader, etc.

That is why I believe that God has revealed himself as Father to us--not because he is male (God is beyond sex or gender), but because humans so desperately need fathering and men need to be shown that this is what God made us to be. This is how we men are in the divine image. (Mother is how women are in the divine image.) God took a creative leap by making males--male humans in particular. We are a tremendously vulnerable sex, tremendously at risk. Human history has been a testament to how men can royally screw things up. And yet God has not given up on us. There is something so intrinsically valuable in human maleness that God keeps trying to redeem it. He even went to the extreme of becoming a man himself, to show us how to do it--but also to calm our terror. Being a man is no easy thing--but God believes it's worth it.

If we men can accomplish both of these goals (owning our hearts and being fathers), then humanity will be well on it's way to achieving a society that allows women equal status and men a unique, valuable and masculine role. These goals should also equip men to help humanity wrest control of the "progress" juggernaut, so that instead of being forced to adapt helplessly to a relentlessly changing economic and cultural environment, we can proactively change the culture to accommodate human nature. Although the old hunter-gathering culture of humanity is long past, the wisdom it contained for men is still valuable, something men should see as part of their heritage, even as it must be adapted to the present age.