Friday, November 03, 2006

Oh, Brother, Part III at Last

Part the Thank-Goodness-It's-the-Third: In Which C Goes All Earth Mama on Matters and Risks Outraging a Good Portion of the English-Speaking World in Some Way or Another.

It seems to me the basic assumption of the citations above (actually below, as blogs load from the top, but you know what I meant) is that the reproductive systems of our paleolithic ancestors was in at least some respects similar to ours. At the very least, they don't seem to assume drastic differences, so let's work from the assumption that at this point they were fairly similar. That way we can assume that paleolithic women already possesed all the advantages that would make monogamy a desirable strategy. But let's not assume they didn't know what was going on, or that subtlety in ovulation was entirely a mechanism for maintaining peace in the tribe by keeping lunkheaded males in line or in the dark or fooling any potential Liliths out there into overcoming their reticence.

In the first place, that human female fertility symptoms are subtle doesn't mean they're nonexistent. Any modern female with a little experience practicing fertility awareness (and probably some without) can tell you that, despite our collective cultural distance from the Garden. Primitive cultures around today are, as a rule, a lot more in tune with nature and their own bodies than are most of us. The author of The Continuum Concept (sorry, read it a long time ago and don't have a copy to hand) related, for example, that in the Yanomamo tribe of the Amazon, the occasional new mother who "missed the signs" and was soiled by her infant (no diapers in the Amazon) was a source of great levity.

In the second place, our crazy, mixed-up reproductive cycles and behavior owe something to our crazy, mixed-up modernity. Modern hunter-gatherer peoples around the world could provide us some clues about prehistoric reproductive cycles, if someone wanted to study this and could persuade some of those folks to discuss the topic. But it's not necessary to go even that far. Anybody who's ever lived in a womens' dormitory or sorority house or batched it with a couple of other gals can tell you what happens when a small group of women of reproductive age live in close association with each other. Synchrony! Moreover, it is well known from some of those hunter-gatherer cultures as well as from history what happens to the female cycle in the absence of artificial light. (Some of the neopagans have made a regular religion out of this. Somebody even tried to base a new form of natural family planning on it, back in the hippie days. But I digress.) Most, if not all, of the women of reproductive age in our theoretical paleolithic extended family group would not only be synchronized to each other, but also to the cycles of the moon. Males wouldn't be sqaubbling over "the female in estrus" or even just the "fertile female" because all the females would be ovulating at the full moon (more or less) and menstruating--if they weren't pregnant--at the new moon.

Don't try to convince me that people who can ID and list uses for thousands of jungle plants and predict when it's time to take Baby off the trail to do his business can't figure out "women conceive at the full moon" or "women conceive when they are producing mucus"--I ain't buyin' it. I see no reason why our paleolithic ancestors couldn' have had some understanding of the moon/cycle/pregnancy relationship as well, especially as females would be tending to come up pregnant at the same time of the month and fertile females would differ from nonfertile females in precisely the characteristics that were under lunar effect. I'm not suggesting, mind you, that those ancestors (or Amazon tribeswomen, or !Kung women,) were all highly skilled Ovulation Method practitioners long before the Billingses ever thought of it. But I think it's incautious to assume they had no understanding of their own biology, either, especially if on that assumption rests a theory of origins.

Yea, verily, many years ago (1979, to be exact,) Mary Shivanandan penned a few facts on the cultural history of fertility awareness in her book Natural Sex. They are a very few facts, unfortunately. I think there really isn't a whole lot of information on this topic. There certainly wasn't in 1979. One factor, I think, is that Modern Cultural Blindness thing again; I've long since given up counting the number of educated professionals I've encountered or heard of whom no amount of pounding will convince that any woman can learn and make use of fertility awareness principles. Perhaps reticence on the part of the subjects (i. e. modern primitive people) to discuss family matters or 'women talk' with nosy, pith-helmeted outsiders (who are really more interested in your hunting spear and the meaning of that feather headdress you're wearing anyway) has also stood in the way.

At any rate, waaay back in the days when Nature was still in, Shivanandan relayed the findings of some early fertility awareness researchers:

Dr. Claude Lanctot came across a black woman in Chicago in the 1950's whose grandmother had taught her about mucus as a sign of fertility. She had brought the folk wisdom with her from Africa as a slave. Dr. Hanna Klaus...also found that African women understood the relationship
Dr. Klaus was asked to train teachers of Natural Family Planning in Kenya....She found difficulties over the word 'mucus'
[It wasn't a nice thing to talk about in the culture.] was known that a pregnancy would result [from] intercourse during the period of mucus. The information was handed down from grandmother to granddaughter. A certain ritual was associated with passing on this information...When the young people moved to the city the ritual disappeared and with it the information...Dr. Klaus found the same with the American Indians. One woman told her that since her mother had died at birth, her father had told her...It was something handed down from parent to daughter.

In short, fertility awareness in some form has been around, probably for quite some time. I'm inclined to think that, whatever mechanisms led hominids to recurring cyclic fertility throughout the year and whenever it happened, there is no reason to assume that 'concealed' ovulation was as little apparent to them as it seems to be to some of us. It occurs to me, moreover, that the natural hormonal influences of ovulation have probably been pretty effective over the millenia at overcoming female reticence. It's a frequent side effect of chemical contraceptives that some dulling of hormonal drives takes place; it is important, again, not to read our modern experience too deeply into the fossil record.

There's also the (Lord knows how old) matter that maternity, in almost every culture, confers an elevation in social status for the mother. Is it possible that paleolithic humans also had behavioral/social incentives for motherhood? Shreeve mentions the presence of female figurines at some sites. He does not spend much time musing over their possible significance except to note differences between archeologists as to whether the figures have religious or cultural significance or are mere 'paleolithic porn.' It seems to me that the carvers went to an awful lot of effort to produce 'porn' (and that in a culture where survival was a round-the-clock job and clothing probably hard to come by anyway) if that was all it was. That the figures were a kind of totem used for honoring or celebrating fertility and maternity seems more likely.

So, my conclusion? The Shreeve book is well-researched and well-written work of science journalism and a good chronicle of a very busy period in paleoanthropology. It will doubtless continue to age well as a historical document of that period. It discusses the big issues in the field intelligibly and engagingly and depicts the people who work in it with life and color.

Shreeve is a journalist, not a scientist, and so seems reticent to question the heavy hitters in the field. This is understandable, but also tends to muddy things as those heavy hitters (under no such restraint) flail at each other throughout the book. Questions like the one about the importance of parsimony to the Eve hypothersis that has been hounding me since Part I don't really get dealt with, which is too bad for the reader. Theories like the ones over which I have spilled so many electrons in this post tend to be accepted uncritically, and input from experts in disciplines outside the human origins business doesn't seem to be of much interest inside it. Thus the reader gets treated to some pretty good ideas, and some not-so-good ideas, but all weighted about the same (except for some political correctness, of course.) For the interested layman, this complicates critical assesment of the ideas being thrown around.


...if they are capable of acquiring enough knowledge
to be able to investigate the world,
how have they been so slow to find its Master?

Wisdom 13:9 The Jerusalem Bible



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