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Evolving Women

Leonard Shlain


     ... writer, laparoscopic surgeon and professor of surgery.  With a keen interest in biological and cultural evolution, Leonard Shlain's Sex, Time and Power:  How Women's Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution builds on intriguing ideas he first presented in The Alphabet Versus the Goddess.  Dr. Shlain writes and lectures widely, is the chief of laparoscopic surgery at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco and Associate Professor of Surgery at UCSF. His critically acclaimed and award-winning books include Art & Physics which is used as a textbook in art schools and universities. His provocative ideas have been translated into a number of languages.  Brain cancer killed Dr. Shlain in May, 2009.


Homo sapien -- and "gyna sapien" -- should expect the unexpected, says Leonard Shlain. He is fascinated with the human animal, which he reminds us is very much part of nature and therefore evolving. Women, Dr. Shlain believes, are central to what we were, are and will be next because he believes that women's sexuality shaped human evolution.

Dr. Shlain looks ahead to predict that our species has reached a moment as critical as our "creative explosion" 40,000 years ago. But first, he looks back to propose that the birth of the human species 150,000 years ago was shaped in the crucible of a crisis.

The crisis, he proposes, was the so-called "obstetrical dilemma." Our upright stance and females' very narrow birth canal created a critical problem birthing offspring, our babies have the highest brain-per-body-size of any animal.

Reproduction was also critical to figuring out time, Dr. Shlain believes, crediting females for recognizing patterns here. Making the connection of sex to pregnancy was critical.  So was realizing there are (exactly) nine lunar cycles between sex and delivering a baby -- no other animal matches that schedule, he says. These dawning realizations, he believes, allowed humans to maneuver in the dimension of time. And that, he believes, started us down the long path to art and the "creative explosion" of 40,000 years ago.

Finally, Dr. Shlain was looking for something to explain what he believes is inherent in male-female relations -- a conflict of agendas that is so deep that it could account for misogyny. This is where his ideas about "power" come in. Once women figured out the connection between sex and pregnancy, he proposes, she gained the power to veto sex.  What would he give for what he got? Dr. Shlain also sees possible origins of language in the negotiations surround this exchange.

Fundamentally, Leonard Shlain believes, the Genesis story is right -- females were first to achieve ego consciousness and then taught it to males.

So what comes next?  Chart the last 2.5 million years in the hominid experiment, he proposes. Over millennia, we would see a flat horizontal curve with very little happening for a very long time. Profound changes began, then accelerated exponentially, a relatively flat line turning into a logarithmically rising vertical curve arriving at the present day.
In science, Dr. Shlain says, we know that nothing can sustain this dramatic rise, it simply cannot go on forever. What happens, he says, is that the object being measured changes state -- like water being heated until it suddenly turns to steam -- and literally turns into something else -- metamorphosis not unlike a caterpillar into a butterfly. This time, he believes, our change will not be physical, it will be spiritually and transcendentally.

What is that "something else"? No telling, Leonard Shlain assures us. But then, he says, who would have believed that one could combine hydrogen (an explosive gas) with oxygen (a combustible gas) and get water?

[This Program was recorded December 4, 2003, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Leonard Shlain traces the origins of his interest in how nature shaped humanity for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. From a biological perspective, Dr. Shlain agrees with the Genesis story that "Eve" was the first to gain ego consciousness.


Conversation 2

The time homo sapien and "gyna sapien" have been on the planet is a blink of the evolutionary eye, Dr. Shlain says, then describes 2 incompatible and distinct physical characteristics that he believes account for our species' origin, in the crucible of a crisis.  He details the human female's problem -- unknown in the rest of the animal world -- and how she figured out the connection between sex and pregnancy. He proposes profound effects for both women and men of figuring out that connection in light of humanity's realization that we will die.


Conversation 3

We effectively recapitulate the three major insights that changed the human species, Dr. Shlain says, and outlines the first two: women figuring out the connection between sex and pregnancy, which he believes allowed humans to maneuver in the dimension of time; and wishing for immortality. He proposes the origin of language in the need to negotiate sex, then factors into his equation women's need for iron.


Conversation 4

Throughout the human female reproductive life-cycle, she constantly loses iron, Dr. Shlain reports, reminding listeners that humans were herbivores before leaving our original home in Africa. He explains how he believes we adapted to the planet's most severe Ice Age, then proposes roots for patriarchal, misogynous societies: women's power to veto sex, coupled with men's desire for immortality. Linking lunar cycles to human females' reproductive realities, Dr. Shlain credits women with the discovery of time and other insights that he believes eventually produced art.


Conversation 5

Something inherent in male-female relations accounts for misogyny, Dr. Shlain believes, then explores the potential for conflict inherent in women's and men's agendas, moderated, he believes, by every human being a psychic hermaphrodite. Darwin's theories have for 150 years provided incredibly predictive tools that leave no need for an "intelligent designer," he says, open to individuals believing what they like about the origins of natural selection. Revisiting the "obstetrical dilemma," Dr. Shlain gives the latest on the "African Eve" and her child. He considers homo sapiens' move from prey to predator and the implications of having “overshot the mark” as predators.


Conversation 6

As happened 40,000 years ago (the creative explosion,) and 150,000 years ago (the birth of our species,) we are set to transform, Dr. Shlain asserts. He predicts a metamorphosis that will change us spiritually and transcendentally in ways no one can anticipate.



It is refreshing to know a person following in the rich tradition of 19th century naturalists, drawing from a wide variety of sources in pursuit of understanding the human animal. It is a pleasure to share the ongoing legacy of the Enlightenment project, in pursuit of evidence-based learning. We thank Dr. Shlain for his willingness to put forth and explore novel and sometimes challenging possibilities.  We thank him also for encouraging us our own efforts in that direction.

Related Links:

Leonard Shlain's Sex, Time and Power: How Women's Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution is published by Viking. His The Alphabet Versus The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image is a Viking/Penguin book. Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light is published by HarperCollins.

Dr. Shlain died of brain cancer in May, 2009. His daughter, Kimberly Brooks, wrote about him for the Huffington Post shortly before his death.  Commemorative articles about Dr. Shlain are collected here.

In our first program with Dr. Shlain, the conversation focused on The Alphabet versus The Goddess.

Evolution is, of course, at the center of Dr. Shlain's thinking.  In his 1971 book Sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson presented ideas which evolved into evolutionary psychology.  In Evolution:  The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory, Edward J. Larson has summarized and made accessible Darwin's theories in the context of their time and as they've been updated and adapted by modern science. In an earlier book, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion, Dr. Larson looked at the ongoing social effects of those theories in America.

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