This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.
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What is the history of male dominance in society?
Since the Agricultural Revolution, most cultures have valued males over females, regardless of how each culture defined men and women. Why? Is there a biological basis for this preference?
We’ll cover the history of male dominance in society and why there’s not a clear explanation for its origins.
The History of Male Dominance in Society
We can’t explain the prevalence of patriarchy throughout the world and history the same way we can explain other stratifications in society. Patriarchy is too universal to be explained by accidental events.
It’s more likely that the answer is biological, but researchers still have no idea what it is. There are three main theories of the history of male dominance in society.
Theory #1: Males are naturally stronger, so they forced women to submit to them.
Another version of this theory of the history of male dominance in society says that males used their strength to monopolize agricultural tasks involving manual labor, like plowing. This gave them power over food production, which gave them power over society.
But there are problems with this theory. Females historically were forbidden from entering professions in law and religion, which require little physical work, but have worked in the fields and done the taxing household chores. Furthermore, there are plenty of women stronger than men, but they don’t have much more social power than weaker women. This pokes holes in this theory of the history of male dominance in society.
Further, the historical record shows little relation between physical strength and social power. Slaves in 19th-century Alabama were far stronger than their masters, yet they weren’t the ones in power. In fact, throughout history, the people with the least power in a society are the ones doing the hardest physical work, and those with the most power do the least physically demanding work. Humans rarely choose their leaders by having them compete in a boxing or wrestling match.
Theory #2: Males are naturally more aggressive, so they fought wars and were able to seize power.
A second theory explaining the history of male dominance in society revolves around male aggression.
Males’ control of armies has made them controllers of society as well. The more control over society they had, the more wars they could fight, and the more wars they fought, the more power they gained in society. Studies of male hormones and cognitive systems lend evidence to the theory that males are more aggressive than females (and therefore make better soldiers).
Similar to the problems with Theory #1, while aggressive men may make better combat soldiers, those in the ranks are usually not the ones in power. It’s the generals and politicians who have the power, and being a general or politician requires less aggressiveness and physical strength and more tact, organizational skills, and cooperation. It also requires the ability to view a situation from multiple perspectives. Being an aggressive person makes you a bad choice to run a war. So why the history of male dominance in society?
Females are stereotyped for having more tact than men and being better able to see things from multiple viewpoints. If these stereotypes are true, females would make better generals and politicians than men. Therefore, their biology should make females more powerful than men, not less.
Theory #3: Males had to become competitive and aggressive as a reproductive strategy.
A variation of Theory #2 of the history of male dominance in society, Theory #3 says that males had to compete against one another to impregnate females, so they evolved to be aggressive and competitive. Conversely, females didn’t have trouble finding a male to impregnate them, but they did have trouble getting food while they were pregnant and caring for young children. Therefore, they evolved to be submissive and dependent on males to provide for them. Females who weren’t submissive and who fought for power didn’t have as good a chance at securing a mate and passing on their genes.
There are problems with this theory, too. Even if they were necessarily dependent, it’s not obvious why females would be dependent on males rather than other females. Females of many species, such as bonobo chimpanzees and elephants, form networks of females to collectively raise children. The societies of these species are also matriarchal rather than patriarchal.
Because females had to work together, they developed more refined social skills. Males, on the other hand, spent their time competing, and their social skills remain weak. We’d expect the most cooperative and socially skillful to be those in power. But history didn’t turn out this way, and we still don’t know why. Researchers don’t agree on the origin of our history of male dominance in society.
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- How Sapiens outlived and outlasted the 8+ other human-like species on Earth
- The 3 critical revolutions in human existence that led to our domination of the planet
- How much of what powers our world today is really just a shared mass delusion
- What the future of humanity might look like