I’m reading a fascinating book, titled as above, by Leonard Shlain. In all honesty, I’m only up to p72, but I wanted to share with you today as its message is very much on my mind.

Leonard Shlain was quite the polymath, being a laparoscopic surgeon as well as an author, and inventor. He died in Mill Valley, California, in 2009 at the age of 71.

In The Alphabet Versus The Goddess, published in 1998, he seeks to prove his theory that the rise in written language precipitated a shift in the way we see the world, from right brain to left brain, from holistic to linear, from interconnected to reductionist, from feminine to masculine. The shift was not from one extreme to the other, but from a balanced position in the middle of the spectrum to a lop-sided emphasis on the left-brained masculine principle. This shift led to disrespect for the feminine principle, represented by the Goddess of the title, and increased individualism, patriarchy, and misogyny.

He disagrees with Riane Eisler (I blogged about her book, The Chalice and the Blade, last year) and others who pinned the blame on a group of Kurgan warriors for precipitating the paradigm shift from partnership to domination five thousand years ago. Rather, he claims it was the ascendancy of the written word.

This may seem puzzling. Literacy is surely a good thing, right? It has fast-tracked the ascendancy of humankind by enabling us to pass knowledge easily from one place and one generation to another. But bear with me/Leonard.

Most communication used to happen verbally and in person. When a person is speaking to us, we listen (well, some of us do, sometimes) but we also gather a lot of information by subconsciously noticing their tone of voice, facial expression, hand gestures, body language, and so on. Listening is a holistic experience.

Likewise, speaking is also a holistic experience. We gesture with both our hands, we exercise the muscles on both sides of our face, we use our tongue and our vocal chords and our lungs. Even while speech is generated in the left hemisphere (which is why a left-hemisphere stroke leaves people unable to speak), the right hemisphere is also active in sensing how our words are being received in real time interaction with our audience.

By contrast, reading and writing are much more predominantly left-brain activities. Rather than gesticulating with both hands, we pick up a pen in our dominant (usually the right) hand. We write linearly across the page. The communication is dependent entirely on the written word, without the depth and nuance of tone of voice, facial expression, or gestures (as you will appreciate if you have ever had a joke fall flat or a sensitive message be misunderstood when you sent it by text or email rather than in person).

At the point I’ve reached in the book, Shlain has established the correlation between the spread of the written word and the decline of the feminine principle, and hence the prestige of women. I’m not sure yet that he has established causation, but it’s certainly a fascinating idea. We know for sure that the technology we use changes us and our modes of thinking. And writing is as much a technology as your iPhone.

Shlain is not the only great thinker to express concern about our shift towards a left-brained world – see also Iain McGilchrist’s excellent The Master and His Emissary.

The summary on the back of the The Alphabet Versus The Goddess assures me that: “Shlain ends his book with an optimistic appraisal that the proliferation of images in film, TV, graphics, and computers is once again reconfiguring the brain by encouraging right hemispheric modes of thought and bringing about the re-emergence of the feminine.” I’d like to believe that is true, although I have my doubts, given how many of those technological images are given over to violence, pornography, and other images detrimental to the feminine…. But I will read that part of the book with an open mind and hope to be convinced, because it’s certainly something I would like to believe.

What do you think? Certain political leaders aside, do you think there is a shift back towards the feminine principles of interconnection, holism, collaboration and nurturance? If so, what do you think is causing it? And do you see it as a good thing?

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