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The Alphabet Versus the Goddess Reader’s Guide

By Leonard Shlain

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess by Leonard Shlain

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess Reader’s Guide

By Leonard Shlain

Category: History


Questions and Topics for Discussion

This groundbreaking book proposes that the rise of alphabetic literacy reconfigured the human brain and brought about profound changes in history, religion, and gender relations. Making remarkable connections across brain function, myth, and anthropology, Dr. Shlain shows why pre-literate cultures were principally informed by holistic, right-brain modes that venerated the Goddess, images, and feminine values. Writing drove cultures toward linear left-brain thinking and this shift upset the balance between men and women, initiating the decline of the feminine and ushering in patriarchal rule. Examining the cultures of the Israelites, Greeks, Christians, and Muslims, Shlain reinterprets ancient myths and parables in light of his theory. Provocative and inspiring, this book is a paradigm-shattering work that will transform your view of history and the mind.

Leonard Shlain is the author of the acclaimed Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light, soon to be a twenty-three-part MSNBC TV series. He has written for many publications, including the Los Angeles Times, and lectures widely on the connection between art and science, and on the subject of this book. A true Renaissance man, he is also the chief of laproscopic surgery at the UC San Francisco Medical Center. He lives in Mill Valley, California.


You base your thesis on the idea that literacyor the use of the alphabetis primarily a left-brain activity, one that also represses right-brain activity. Can you elaborate on how the repression of right-brain activities would lead to misogynist societies?

When we speak and listen we use both sides of the brain. The left hemisphere processes the words linearly. Simultaneously, the right hemisphere evaluates speech’s nonverbal clues such as body language and vocal inflection. Literacy, in contrast, depends primarily on the skills of the left hemisphere of men and women. I believe the right hemisphere (of both men and women who are right-handed) processes tasks traditionally female. The left hemisphere (of both men and women who are right-handed) processes tasks traditionally male. Literacy reinforces the masculine left hemisphere and devalues the right lobe, and this factor inflamed misogyny in literate societies. This occurred in the brains of both men and women, each of whom possesses a masculine side and a feminine side. Of course, it isn’t as neat as I have explained here, but these are the bones of my thesis.

What, exactly, compelled you to research the effects of left-brain values on civilization? What came first: the thesis or the research?

I was electrified by the split brain research of the ’60s. As a surgeon, I have operated on carotid arteries to the brain. I also was deeply affected by the ideas of media theorist Marshall McLuhan. In 1991, I went on an archaeological tour of Mediterranean sites and was intrigued by the overwhelming evidence of a time when both men and women worshipped goddesses. By the time Judaism, Christianity, and Islam became the West’s only three religions, goddesses had disappeared. It occurred to me that this event coincided with the time when people were learning to read and write. I suspected that there was something in the way people learned this new skill that reconfigured their brains. I hypothesized that the demise of the goddess was an inside job.

How do your findings about right- and left-brain values apply to your own dual careers as surgeon and writer?

Surgery is very yang and a little yin, writing is very yin and a little yang. Being both a writer and a surgeon provides a considerable balance to my life. Also, surgeons are steeped in science and are trained in a very left-brained manner early on. But the actual practice of surgery is very right-brained. It is tactile, intuitive, and very visual- spatial. Further, surgeons are the essence of hunter-killers seeking and rooting out disease literally with their hands. Very masculine. And yet, caring for patients during one of the most frightening and painful episodes of their lives requires tenderness and empathy. Surgery is caring and hunting.

Your description of the evolution of the early male and female body and brain is fascinating. If you were to make a conjecture, how would you guess that our bodies and brains are developing now?

Our success as the only truly predatory primate was primarily due to two incompatible features. One was our need to remain bipedal so we could walk on the ground and keep our hands free. The other was a constant need to increase cleverness by enlarging the brain. Babies’ heads became so big that they became stuck in the mother’s birth canal. Hominid females began to die in childbirth. Something had to give. Nature redesigned the human nervous system. Lacking hardly any instincts, humans are born helpless, but they possess a brain capable of acquiring incredible amounts of knowledge. A split brain simplified the wiring for a language brain. Language allows us to learn easily. We have continued to evolve by adding outside peripherals to our brain. The first was culture enhanced by spoken language. Then came writing, libraries, the printing press, photography, film, television, and now computers and the Internet. Each new technology of information transfer makes humans smarter and more knowledgeable and it is these extra-somatic pieces of our brain that are changing us even though our bodies remain the same.

Was there more of a dichotomy between men and women and left- and right-brain behavior at the dawn of civilization?

We can only make speculative assumptions concerning the structure of human societies long ago. Evidence seems to suggest that gender roles were more firmly established in hunter-gatherer societies than they are presently. We are social predators similar to lions, wolves, and killer whales that hunt in cooperative packs. In other social predators, the females play a leading role in the hunting and killing. In humans, hunting is left primarily to the males because crying babies cannot be brought along. Human offspring require more care from their mothers than the offspring of any other life form. What other female would come to the aid of its offspring if it called for help twenty-five years after the date of birth? Despite the considerable differences in the principal labors of each sex, there was a tacit recognition of the importance of one to the other. An economic and emotional interdependence fostered a greater level of equality than would exist in many more advanced empires that came later. There is evidence that we have been split-brained and split-handed since ancient times. Prehistoric artists painted outlines of their left hands in eighty percent of examples studied, suggesting that the same percentage were right-handed. Presently, the ratio is ninety-two percent right-handed people to eight percent left-handed. Some factor changed in culture to skew these ratios. I believe it was literacy.

Are we evolving into more integrated societies as a whole? How do literacy and other forms of communication influence this development?

Yes. I believe that McLuhan’s aphorism “the medium is the message” provides the insight into the effect on culture of its principal form of communication. It isn’t only the content of information that can change us, it is the process by which we perceive the information. Speaking and listening are very different activities from writing and reading. The former engages both sides of the brain but the latter relies more on one: the masculine side of both men and women. This factor bolsters patriarchy and misogyny and unbalances culture.

You state that “there is something inherently anti-female in the written word. Men obsessed with the written word tend to be sexist.” Can you elaborate on this point? What does it mean to be “obsessed” with the written word? What happens to women obsessed with writing?

There is a neurological condition known as hypergraphia. Hypergraphia afflicts men disproportionately. Compulsive diarists possess a lesion in their left brain that causes them to write excessively, detailing every aspect of their life. They often endow their tedious writings with great religious significance. In general, hypergraphics are rigid, humorless, domineering, and unsympathetic. One could easily imagine how women, feminine values, and intuition would fare if one of these patients was in a position of power. This profile, however, fits many Western religious leaders. Augustine, Jerome, Luther, and Calvin spent great portions of their lives writing long religious tracts. These men were “obsessed” with the importance of their written words. Using fear and threats to carry out their aims, they were all misogynists whose writings turned people away from the goddess, nature, and the feminine.

Poets and novelists use metaphors, a right hemispheric form of language. They “paint” images with words and differ from writers of abstract works. As an exercise, try to come up with the name of a significant male writer who wrote long dense tomes about religion and philosophy and who also was not a misogynist.

Women are generally not as affected by the masculinizing tendencies of the written words because the brains of women are not nearly as sharply divided as the brains of men. Women in general do not as often as men express extremes. Women who write feminist polemical books tend to express themselves more in their masculine modes.

You discuss at length the horrors visited upon the aboriginal peoples living in the New World by its conquerorssixteenth-century Europeans “driven mad by the printing press”and you wonder how such an invasion would have been different if the conquering culture had been more tolerant, such as the early Romans under Julius Caesar. How exactly does pre-literacy impact on a culture’s tolerance? Weren’t ancient and modern invaders of non-Western lands equally bloodthirsty and destructive?

Belligerency appears to be a fairly universal human trait. Nevertheless, the least war like societies seem to be pre-literate agricultural societies. Iroquois Indians, for example, maintained the Great Peace in the Northeast for over three hundred years. Hunter/gatherer, pastoral, and nomadic cultures tend to be more “bloodthirsty.” There is no evidence that Neolithic agricultural people ever fought organized wars. The most contentious periods in Western history were those characterized by high literacy rates: Classical Greece, Imperial Rome, the Renaissance, and Europe of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The roots of mayhem are complex but I feel that alphabet literacy has been an overlooked factor.

How does the Internet fit in with your hypothesis? Like the printing press, it duplicates type, and must be read. And yet it also sends out an image, making use of right-brain skills. Is the Internet an example of the kind of unifying trend you see as part of current civilization’s makeup? Or will it present its own problems for historians and anthropologists of future centuries to analyze and discuss?

The computer and the Internet will once again reconfigure the brains of those that use them. Typing is a two-handed activity that requires input from both sides of the brain. Writing requires only the dominant hand. The use of a mouse by the right hand necessitates the activation of right-hemispheric visual-spatial skills. The World Wide Web and the Internet are not linear, they are holistic. All ancient deities associated with webs and nets were goddesses. Many of the processes we use to operate a computer are inherently feminine.

What criticisms have your theories elicited? How would you address them?

The main criticism stems from people hearing about the theory but not reading the book and misinterpreting what I have proposed. I am not saying that men read better than women or that men’s left brains are better than women’s. I am not saying that people shouldn’t read or that television is an unqualified benefit. Some feminists resent that a man has written a book about the goddess. Mea culpa. Some academics are appalled that a non-specialist has wandered through their turf. Mea culpa. And some reviewers believe that interpreting all history through a narrow lens is too simplistic. To write a book of such sweeping scope, I had to leave out a lot of alternative possibilities. This does not mean that I am unaware of them. In general, the book has been very favorably reviewed and many people are excited to have a neuroanatomical hypothesis to explain a historical enigma.

You set forth an optimistic view of the present and the future, of a world in which the “right-hemisphere values of tolerance, caring, and respect for nature” will help correct some of the damage that has been wrought over the past two millennia. What sorts of changes do you envision in terms of human behavior, technology, and communication? What, if any, dangers exist in a world dominated by right-hemisphere values?

Human advances move in fits and starts. Technology has moved us all to a global village. Tolerance has markedly increased. Religious wars are on the wane. Fundamentalism is in retreat. Dogmatic ideologies have been discredited. At the same time, human rights are moving forward. Women’s status is on the upswing. And a newfound respect and love for nature is evident in the burgeoning ecology movement. There remains much work to be done but I believe that as image and word come into balance, so too will left and right hemispheres, and masculine and feminine. All extremes have dangers and too much emphasis on right-hemispheric modes could lead to superstitions, sensual excesses, and a loss of scientific advances. Despite these concerns, I think we are living in a New Renaissance fueled by the Iconic Revolution.

  • Throughout the book Shlain emphasizes the dualities inherent in the experience of livinglife/death, yin/yang, reason/madness. Why do you think it is important to recognize these dualities? Can you think of examples in your own life in which opposing forces work together to create both negative and positive change?
  • Shlain uses the example of Christ’s teachings to illustrate the difference between the spoken word and the written word. Communication, he argues, changes when it is written. What sorts of changes is he talking about? How do you think the ideas exchanged in your own group would be altered if they were written down?
  • In his history of human civilization, Shlain recounts centuries of cruel and violent behavior carried out in behalf of religion and ethnic purity. In each case, he cites a literacy-related cause for such behavior. Using his thesis, is it possible to find similar root causes for such atrocities as the tribal massacres in Rwanda, the ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, or shootings in America’s schools? A century from now, how do you think historians and anthropologists will explain these incidents?
  • Shlain is optimistic for the future of mankind and is convinced that we are returning to right-hemisphere-type values that point to a more peaceful future. Do you agree or disagree with him?
  • Shlain cites a number of male figuresincluding Moses, Christ, Plato, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Hitler, Einstein, and Freudwho made important and lasting (but not always beneficial) contributions to civilization. What makes their contributions so significant? How were they or their actions affected by the written word? Can you add any living peopleany womenwho might be added to that list?
  • Chances are, you have a television and a telephone in your home. Discuss the role these technologies play in your lives, especially with regard to communication. Likewise, how do you think computers are affecting current generations of young people? Are the impacts mostly positive or negative?
  • Discuss the right-brain/left-brain theory and explain which sides each of you favor. Then discuss how the results break down by gender in your group.
  • Shlain points to the invention of the printing press as the cause for much of the excessive behavior of the sixteenth century. Is the Internet our century’s printing press? Give examples in which the Internet has played an important role, whether negative or positive, in shaping recent events.
  • “In the age of the image,” writes Shlain, “literacy will inevitably decline.” Even if this development does not lead to a decline in our overall intelligence, what concerns does it raise? Imagine if your children’s school decided that learning to perceive and create images took precedence over reading skills. Is there a prejudice against imagery in our society? If so, is it a valid prejudice?
  • After reading The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, do you agree with Shlain’s thesis?
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