Meanderings in response to “Nonzero: the logic of human destiny”

This blog is meant to be a place for me to speculate and hypothesize. I’m trying, as I have for most of my life, to figure out the meaning of life. I do not necessarily assume that there is one. Science has not yet determined whether life is meaningful by any criteria, so speculation – by anyone — seems perfectly reasonable.

I’ve been reading a lot of history in the last few years in an attempt to find answers, or at least to find the context for what it is to be human here and now. I continually run into a problem. Many history books give the impression that whole countries were populated exclusively by men for hundreds of years. I’ve read books of five hundred pages with not a mention of woman. Really, I’m not kidding.

Writing about humanity without mentioning women seems to me to be like examining bipedal motion by studying only the left foot, photographing or videotaping only the left foot. Your idea of human motion would be completely skewed, wouldn’t it?

So I’ve become more and more frustrated by history texts. Yes, history is written by the winners, but there never was any battle between men and women, women weren’t excised from the historical record; women are ghosts, invisible for the most part, silent all the time. We seem to have no more relevance to whatever historians consider important than the pigs or cows penned behind the houses of the men.

So I was really excited when I came across Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright. The blurbs on the inside cover approached hyperbole. It promised to give me a complete overview of the totality of human history. Oh joy.


In the first paragraph Wright states his thesis, that there is “direction in human history.” He believes in cultural evolution and so goes against the recent trend against such beliefs. Anthropologists of the early twentieth century had finally clued in to the fact that their predecessors, cultural Darwinians, were biased by virtue of being winners: “In placing western cultures atop a universal ladder of progress, they seemed merely the academic expression of an already too-common European supremacism.”

Imagine my surprise when, a few pages in, I discovered Nonzero was not a history of humanity, or a history of civilization, but a history of patriarchy (which is only one kind of civilization). Wright does with gender what Darwinians did with western culture. He speaks from the isolation of the smallest quadrant of humanity – the priviledged male.

Men can’t tell the difference between patriarchy and culture, any more than they can tell the difference between men and human, unfortunately. (Neither can a lot of women.) If you need a illustration of the difference, think about the difference between a basket of fruit and a basket of peaches. A lot of misperception occurs when people describe generalities instead of specifics, and a lot of dishonesty hides through the willful description of generality rather than specific.

Early in the book Wright makes some claims about human nature. Humans pursue status, he says, “with a certain ferocity.” We try to raise our standing by impressing peers, we suck up to people of higher status, we curry their favour. This is because “human beings evolved amid social hierarchies. ”

First of all, we have not evolved amid “social hierarchies”. We have evolved within patriarchies. Again this is a certain kind of hierarchy, the kind where status, power and wealth are given importance by the men in a society run by men.

I don’t think the ferocious quest for status would occupy such a high place in the description of humanity if women were the humans being examined. Throughout the long history of humanity a woman’s day would begin with clasping a baby to the breast, feeding multiple people according to need only, helping other humans give birth, tending to sickness and woundedness. If that’s what an anthropologist saw when looking at humans and human societies, she would first of all describe humans as deeply and ferociously cooperative.

This book is written from within the blindness of masculine conditioning. Let me jump to the back of the book to show you an example. The author refers to a study by a psychologist who “used boys in a summer camp (unbeknownst to them) to study human nature.” This sentence is written without irony, as if a) boys and humans are the same thing and b) boys are natural creatures rather than man-made creations.

This study was done decades ago, so one may wish to forgive the ignorance of the time, but Wright reproduces it in this book, published in 2000. By that year any thinking person knew that gender was conditioned, that most humans live in patriarchal societies, and thus that boys will reproduce the patriarchal teachings they’ve imbibed consciously and unconsciously. They are mirrors of their society; when they live in a phallocentric patriarchy, they will give useful information only about patriarchy and its impact on males. Boys alone can tell us nothing about human nature except its capacity for imitation.

If you want to find out something about humanity, you need to examine males by themselves, females by themselves, and both in interaction. That at least would give you a chance of finding out something. But men refuse to identify themselves as men. I’ve written about that here. They insist on identifying themselves simply as human, using words like “mankind” (which was meant to refer to the totality of humankind, but didn’t really), and later “humanity” or “humankind” (which at least acknowledges that there are humans other than men.) “Man” and “human” are not the same thing. One is a subcategory of the other. How hard is that to understand?

I’m sure men do understand it; they use the larger category in an attempt to hide their crimes. It’s human nature, they want to say, not specifically male behavior. I’ve just come across an example of this in the only intellectual magazine in Canada. And I have to say I find it devastating that any man can say what the editor-in-chief of The Walrus magazine just said. He was speaking about white male priviledge:

As a writer and public speaker living in a liberal democratic society, I absolutely take it for granted that when I speak on TV or write a column in a magazine or on a website, I speak for myself, and only myself. I don’t speak for white people. Or for men. Or for middle-aged people. Or Jews. Or lapsed conservatives. If I wake up feeling funny, or mischievous, or sanctimonious, I can be funny, or mischievous, or sanctimonious in what I say or write. For good or ill, it’s all on me, and only me.

There it is. A man thinks he speaks for himself only. For forty or more years feminist scholars of all disciplines – anthropology, sociology, gender studies, literary criticism, philosophy – have been telling men that when they speak, their discourse is steeped in their masculinity. They speak as socially-constructed men, not as individuals, not as default humans. And here he is, an educated public intellectual, who has heard none of it.

At first when I read those words, I thought he had mispoken. I thought he meant that masculine priviledge allows him to pretend that he speaks for himself only, not as a representative of masculinity. That in fact is what masculine priviledge allows. But no, Jonathan Kays actually believes he speaks as himself only and that “identity politics” (as he refers to the demands by women and people of colour that they be allowed to speak in public) plays no role at all in his speech. As if “masculinity” does not affect identity.

It’s enough to make a person give up. However, I will post more responses to Wright’s book in future posts. Stay tuned.


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