Anthropologists tell us that the human race has gone through distinct phases in its development. The hunter-gatherer phase was the first and apparently the longest-lasting, and was characterized by a sharp division of labor and roles between males and females. The males, for the most part, were responsible for the capture of game and those chores associated with this task, such as making weapons and planning tactics and strategy of the hunt. In reciprocation for his exposing himself to the mortal dangers of stalking and killing game, the male was likely to rest during most of his time in camp.
In camp, the female was master: she was responsible for the care and rearing of children, the construction of huts and hovels, gathering and foraging for edible plants, and the physical transportation of camp supplies. In this respect (carrying supplies) primitive women were quite strong, almost the physical equal of their male counterparts. Even today, in primitive societies in Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific, it is incredible to see just how much weight native women are able to carry on their heads and backs. In carrying out her tasks about camp, women were also likely the inventors of sewing, basketry, pottery, weaving, woodworking, and primitive construction.
Written accounts of white settlers in North America often marvel at the astonishing capacity for work displayed by native women. Being feminine at this state of civilization meant something very different than it does now: women were expected to be useful, to pull their weight, and to earn their keep. For tens of thousands of years—perhaps even hundreds of thousands—human society existed and preserved itself roughly along these lines, all across the globe. Our current instincts and behavioral inheritances as men and women are traceable to this crucial period of history.
The invention of agriculture (roughly 10000 B.C.) brought a revolutionary change in human society and social organization. Perhaps by observing nature (bees storing honey, birds dropping seeds on fertile soil that later sprouted, etc), humans eventually began to realize that edible material could be coaxed out of the soil, and seed could be saved during winter months. Slowly, over a great deal of time, more efficient and reliable tools were invented to do agricultural work. The digging stick or spear eventually gave way to the modern hoe. As food supplies increased, populations increased, and social organization became more complex and differentiated. Finally, a major step was made with the domestication of animals which could assist in agricultural tasks, such as oxen. Cattle became a source of wealth.
The rise of agriculture was critical to the establishment of patriarchies around the world. Man, due to the physical strength needed to control the plow and domestic cattle, was able to accrete the benefits of agriculture to himself. Land became the measurable source of wealth, which was to be passed down by inheritance through the male line of descent. Female fidelity was demanded, and marriage came to be seen as a device for ensuring that property would be transmitted to offspring of the husband. Ultimately, women and children came to be subordinate to the man, who found himself in permanent control of the sources of agrarian wealth: land and domesticated animals. We should not overstate this, however. In both primitive and agricultural stages of development, sex roles were strongly differentiated. At all stages of social development, the family has been the fundamental social institution; and women and men performed different but equally valuable roles.
These different sex roles, described above, have withstood the test of time. Their longevity has been demonstrated over many thousands of years. They have persisted so long because they fulfill an instinctive need present in all humans. It is a serious mistake to neglect this fact, and to believe that we, in the comfort of our “modern” era, are somehow different from humans in previous eras. We are now paying a high price for our arrogance. Failure to respect these traditional sex roles has corroded the bases of First World societies, with predictable results.
It was the Industrial Revolution which shattered hundreds of thousands of years of social precedent, and re-wrote the rules on a grand scale. It was even more revolutionary than the passage from the primitive stage to the agricultural stage. For our purposes, the major social result of the Industrial Revolution in Europe in the 18th century was the gradual replacement of an old ethic by a new one. The development of factories and industry favored the growth of cities; and in big cities it was easy for traditional checks on human behavior (family, religion, clan) to wither away. The primacy of the family began to be replaced by the primacy of the individual. Moral codes that had been based on family controls and religious sanction began to lose their power, as the individual, rather than the family, began to be seen as the basic unit of society.
Women were drawn into industrialized city work as traditional modes of life became less glamorous; rural depopulation began, and is still proceeding steadily. For both men and women, city life enabled the pursuit of pleasures more and more easily; men and women postponed marriage to achieve economic security, and found themselves unable to adhere to traditional religious guidance on premarital sex. This put additional pressure on ancient moral codes that valued premarital continence and female virginity.
The Industrial Revolution continues today, although it seems to have entered a post-industrial phase characterized by biotechnology, genetic engineering, and highly accelerated development of computers and machines. The traditional moral codes are under constant attack. Sex roles, we are constantly told, are as out of date as the demons and infernos of medieval theology.
Or are they?
In surveying history, what is most surprising to me is the resilience and persistence of traditional human social behaviors. Despite all our technology, we are at our core not tremendously different from our remote ancestors walking the savannas of East Africa tens of thousands of years ago. Despite all predictions of its demise, the family persists as a social unit. Sex roles have endured. The very fact that these ingrained, sex-specific behavior traits of men and women—dating from the most primitive stages of human development—have survived so long is proof of their worth in maintaining social order.
The past has not vanished. It is still here with us. The primitive phase and the agricultural phases of development are still here. It is easy to forget that the majority of humanity on Earth lives in conditions far different from those prevailing in the urban First World. This majority—the hundreds of millions living in Asia, Africa, and South America—still adhere more or less to traditional ways of doing things. It is remarkable that most of humanity is still governed by the same instincts and impulses that were found in mankind during the earlier phases of human social development. And the fertility of the simple will ensure that their numbers continue to grow, at the expense of the relatively infertile, aging populations of the First World.
The future, it seems, will belong to the past.
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