Is it sheer coincidence that the European witch hunts quickly followed the invention of the printing press? In his groundbreaking work The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, Leonard Shlain proposes that the invention of writing, particularly alphabetic writing, rewired the human brain, causing profound cultural changes in history, religion, and gender relations. While the advent of literacy brought innumerable benefits to society, the switch to left-brain thinking upset the balance between men and women. The rise of male dominance led to a corresponding decline in goddess veneration and the status of women. Ending on a positive note, Shlain notes that the return of an image-oriented culture – through the media of photography, film, television, and the Internet—has brought about a sharp rise in the feminine values denigrated during the 5,000-year reign of patriarchy and literacy.
"Literacy has promoted the subjugation of women by men throughout all but the very recent history of the West," writes Leonard Shlain. "Misogyny and patriarchy rise and fall with the fortunes of the alphabetic written word."
That's a pretty audacious claim, one that The Alphabet Versus the Goddess provides extensive historical and cultural correlations to support. Shlain's thesis takes readers from the evolutionary steps that distinguish the human brain from that of the primates to the development of the Internet. The very act of learning written language, he argues, exercises the human brain's left hemisphere--the half that handles linear, abstract thought--and enforces its dominance over the right hemisphere, which thinks holistically and visually. If you accept the idea that linear abstraction is a masculine trait, and that holistic visualization is feminine, the rest of the theory falls into place. The flip side is that as visual orientation returns to prominence within society through film, television, and cyberspace, the status of women increases, soon to return to the equilibrium of the earliest human cultures. Shlain wisely presents this view of history as plausible rather than definite, but whether you agree with his wide-ranging speculations or not, he provides readers eager to "understand it all" with much to consider. --Ron Hogan