Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.4 (2002) 689-692
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Eve's Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History. By Robert S. McElvaine. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001. Pp. 453. $27.95 (cloth).
In an engaging interdisciplinary study geared to a general readership, Robert S. McElvaine explores the human story from its hominid roots to the present in search of an explanation for the historical subordination of women and the role of sex in shaping history. The author argues that misperceptions about sexual difference and procreative power have served as the motive forces of history, with the male subordination of females at the very base of how our society operates and how we view the world. McElvaine cites male fears of biological inferiority as the basis of women's subordination, finding that "male assertions of superiority" stem from insecurities based on their inability to bear and nourish children. Thus, McElvaine reasons, because of their biological incapacities, men throughout history and across cultures have suppressed women, excluding them from various domains, creating separate definitions of "manliness" based upon a false opposition to "womanliness" (4).
The author traces the role of sex in history in chronological fashion, beginning his inquiry in the prehistoric past and concluding with the late twentieth century. Terming Eve's Seed a work of "biohistory," McElvaine applies modern historical and biological scholarship to ancient myths and [End Page 689] religious texts to stress that the received sexual hierarchy is a cultural construction with no basis in biological fact. After surveying the five million years of human evolution preceding the dawn of agriculture, McElvaine concludes that "the most significant historical events" took place about ten thousand years ago, when the invention of agriculture started to disrupt long-established ways of life, creating a social environment for which the "human biogram" was not well adapted. The author concludes that fixed agriculture, with its intentional production of food, devalued the traditional male roles of hunting and group defense that had persisted for millions of years, some 98 percent of the span of human evolution.
McElvaine terms the advent of agriculture a "megarevolution" that reshaped human society, fundamentally altering the relationship between resources and population (87). With agriculture, population growth became desirable, obligating women to abdicate their previous role in production to concentrate on reproduction. The offshoot of this upheaval was a "masculinist movement" by which men, in need of new roles, gradually took over roles previously defined as feminine, ultimately changing the human understanding of procreation in ways that have influenced history since. Thus, prior to the traditional historical period, humans had already entered a new reproductive situation in which women were largely consigned to child rearing and viewed as inferior. Based upon such findings, McElvaine argues the merits of extending the inquiry beyond the standard historical period when considering fundamental questions of human development. He cautions that by employing the traditional approach "we historians have put ourselves in the same situation as . . . the other people who lived during the last five thousand years . . . [taking] these changes as givens, the way things are, rather than as products of historical development" (15).
While McElvaine's approach is comprehensive and allows for some novel findings, it also has its limitations. As the author acknowledges, conclusions resting upon the prehistoric period must, by their nature, be tentative and even speculative. With this caveat in mind, McElvaine, employing a range of written sources and representational art forms from around the world, advances imaginative arguments in support of his thesis. Demonstrating how the agricultural revolution featured prominently in many cultures' ancient myths, he argues that such accounts blamed wo-men for the loss of the "collector-hunter" way of life. Finding this to be particularly true of the Genesis account, McElvaine presents a lively interpretation, asserting that Genesis provides an allegory of the "fall" men experienced as a result of women's invention of agriculture, as represented by Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge (95). Thus, McElvaine states, by the time of the Genesis account...