Thursday Book: A man with sex on the brain

The Alphabet Versus The Goddess: Male Words And Female Images By Leonard Shlain, Allen Lane/Penguin Press, pounds 16.99
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IN THE novel The Flounder, by Gunter Grass's, the eponymous and magical fish observed the condition of the tribespeople in the region subsequently known as Poland and contrasted it unfavourably with the great Mediterranean civilisations. The northerners lived in a society dominated by women, which therefore experienced neither progress, history or movement. Their way of life was, in this sense, timeless. The fish decided to help them by giving advice to the men. Time began to pass, with consequences so disastrous that in the 20th century the remorseful flounder allowed himself to be caught and put on trial by women.

Grass had the right idea about what to do with the notion that qualities of thought and behaviour can all be sorted by gender: action and aggression behind the gentlemen's door, being and nurturing behind the Ladies'. It belongs in the idiom of the folk tale, to be told today with tongue very much in cheek.

Leonard Shlain, by contrast, believes that the brain is divided into ladies' and gents' hemispheres. On the left, all is action, sequence, order and language; on the right is pattern, holistic perception and feeling. The roots of this division, Shlain asserts, lie in the prehistoric division of labour between male hunter-killers and female gatherer-nurturers.

Shlain's thesis is that, late in the evolutionary day, the invention of alphabetic writing unbalanced the way brains worked, bestowing demonic strength upon the male. Alphabets, he proposes, were the element that tipped societies into previously unplumbed depths of brutality.

Letters were like viruses, provoking epidemics of chaos. Since they required no image-processing capacities, they sidelined the right hemisphere, producing thought patterns unsoftened by empathy. Moreover, these patterns often led to monstrous onslaughts against the manifestations of female thinking - such as the idols of goddesses - and against women themselves.

Much of Shlain's book is a catalogue of human cruelty, with smoking texts close at hand in each case. In its earlier stages, the account is successful in establishing that there is an association that is worth exploring between alphabet literacy and wrath unleavened by mercy. Much of it is the wrath of the Old Testament God, in Jewish, Christian and Muslim forms - all, in the phrasing of the latter, People of the Book.

The Chosen People chose the way of the Word and turned their wrath upon peoples who worshipped images. Martin Luther founded a movement that abhorred the tradition of imagery that the Church had incorporated, causing wave upon wave of religious strife. These were to an extent the first media wars, for which Gutenberg's printing technology produced the ideological munitions.

As the cavalcade of brutality moves on, however, its sheer scale undermines the argument. Are written words really the magic ingredient within all these massacres, witch-hunts, intrigues and invasions? Since Shlain omits to discuss other factors, such as changes in economic production or institutions, he fails to establish that writing is anything other than one of a number of technologies that play a part when societies undergo convulsive bouts of change. It is certainly an enabling technology for factions attempting to amplify their power, enhancing organisation and communication just as the internal combustion engine does. The Rwandan genocide was made possible by the existence of written records, identifying who was a Tutsi and, therefore, a target.

Shlain does not mention this episode, or barely anything else in Africa. Since his argument implies that image-oriented cultures are less male and patriarchal, it would appear to predict that non-literate, traditional African societies were bastions of sexual equality. This does not appear to have been the case, except in remnant hunter-gatherer groups. Shlain sees these as examples of the harmony achieved when male and female principles are balanced. However, equality in forager bands probably owes more to the absence of material resources that individuals can use to attain dominance, and a marked tendency to cut tall poppies down to size.

It is Shlain's simplistic view of the aboriginal division of labour that dooms his enterprise. Several decades out of date in his ideas of human evolution, he sees language as an adaptation to help males hunt. For the past 10 years, scientists have developed extensive models of how life in groups drove up intelligence. In this view, language evolution was stimulated by the need to understand social relationships and the states of others' minds - stereotypically female capacities, in Shlain's model.

Nor does our knowledge of the brain support Shlain's great divide. Yes, there is some evidence of minor anatomical differences in brain organisation, and in men language processing is heavily concentrated in the left hemisphere, whereas women tend to distribute the task more evenly between the two. But the idea that the halves of the brain are in opposition is a typically male conceit.

Marek Kohn

The reviewer's book, `As We Know It: Coming to Terms with an Evolved Mind', will be published by Granta in July