Doctor Science Knows

Monday, December 10, 2007

Book report: The Invisible Sex, by Adovasio, Soffer, Page

The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory by J. M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer, Jake Page

I wanted to like this book more than I did. I wanted it to be the Compleat Feminist Smackdown of Stupid Patriarchal Paleoanthropology; instead, it's some good smackdown ingredients plus some other stuff.

The authors (who I will abbreviate as A/S/P) do a great job of showing how important it is to get women working in paleoanthropology. Soffer herself is a good example: she may have been the first paleoarcheologist to study the clothing and hairstyles of Venus figurines, instead of getting stuck on "OMGbreasts!"

A/S/P do a great job of deconstructing many of the canonical stories about The Ascent of Man as male-centered fantasies. For instance, all the pictures of Stone Age hunters fighting mammoth or other large mammals (this latter from the classic Og, Son of Fire). These images show hunting as crucial, men-only, and risky -- but as A/S/P point out, this is based on neither good archaeology nor good anthropology. Modern hunter-gatherers don't habitually hunt large, fierce animals, it's not worth it the risk that someone will be injured or killed. The paleo-archeological evidence is much more compatible with "Mammoth Hunters" being Mammoth Scavengers, who only killed the animals when they were halfway dead already.

Disappointingly, A/S/P turn around and make up stories of their own. Chapter 6, "Leaving the African Cradle", ends with fictional accounts of the lives of various "mitochondrial mothers", which I found basically unreadable for their lack of a scientific basis.

This book really made me appreciate how many extremely inter-disciplinary paleoanthropology is, and how easy it is for specialists to run into trouble. A/S/P know a great deal about Late Stone Age technology, especially in materials other than stone: the perishable fiber, skin, and bone materials that undoubtably were most of the "stuff" in ancient people's lives. Since Elizabeth Wayland Barber's Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years : Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times is one of my and their favorite books, I'm already on board with their program to actually look for evidence of perishable "stuff" and women's work. They're really good about bringing in an anthropologist's sense of the complexity of tool making, use, and ownership in traditional societies. People in the culture may tell the anthropologist that a particular task is "women's work" or a particular material is "for men", but in practice the two genders depend on each other continuously. Hypothetical example, though not unlike many North American Indian cultures:

Men's WorkWomen's Work
hunt deer 
skin deer 
remove hair & meat 
 soften (tan) hide
 cut hide into pieces
twist leather into sandalssew leather into shirts

So saying "men make sandals and women make shirts" is an oversimplification: it takes work by both genders to make each type of object, and no-one gets a complete outfit without cross-gender cooperation.

Though the book doesn't discuss this, I'll point out here that this, IMHO, is what human marriage is originally "for": the exchange of specialized labor between adults. Sex and children are side effects, the real purpose of marriage is to permit individuals to specialize in either "men's work" or "women's work" but be able to take advantage of both.

Back to the book. Although A/S/P are great at anthropology, they really don't know all that much biology. I feel as though they're really struggling with the fact that no organ comes "for free", that even eyes or intestines will fall away over evolutionary time if they're not useful. Not to mention that calling Alison Jolly "a primatologist who taught at Princeton" gave me a real WTF moment and shows they really aren't familiar with non-human primates and the people who study them (Jolly is the Jane Goodall of Madagascar, the first person to do real field observations of lemur behavior).

Bacause of their weakness in biology, A/S/P don't always know how much evidence they can use to eviscerate the Man-the-Hunter -Drove-Human-Evolution myth. For instance, they talk a lot about hunting animals versus gathering plant food (who did which, which was a more important source of nutrients, etc), but don't seem to realize that carnivorous animals aren't necessarily all that intelligent. In the human hunting:gathering equation, gathering -- using a wide variety of plants for food -- requires more brain-power than hunting. In the story of Christopher McCandless John Krakauer told in Into the Wild, for instance, what killed McCandless was what he didn't know about plant food; he had no particular trouble hunting more meat than he could eat.

It may also be their insecurity with the more biologically-based parts of the field that keep A/S/P from pushing the implications of their work back before the Upper Paleolithic. Evidence from human louse genes supports the idea that clothing and the strings that hold it together dates to about 70,000 years ago, though further louse research indicates that our ancestors lost their body hair much, much earlier, at the start of genus Homo if not before.

My dissatisfactions with the book in fact support A/S/P's thesis: that human evolution is such a complex and emotionally-loaded topic that we can't afford to exclude points of view. It's like trying to study a complicated structure you're living inside: you need to cross-correlate as many POVs as possible to get an idea of the big picture.

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