‘She was there all along, contributing half the genes to each succeeding generation. Most of the books forget about her for most of the time. They drag her on stage rather suddenly for the obligatory chapter on Sex and Reproduction, and then say: ‘All right, love, you can go now,’ while they get on with the real meaty stuff about the Mighty Hunter…’ In this vein Elaine Morgan, a graduate of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, in English literature entertains, startles and informs the mind throughout the 280 pages of this gripping book. She refers to learned books and eats up their ideas and their evidence with her dogged determination to trace the ancestry of the human race. This is how she describes the story of human evolution as it stands now. ‘Smack in the centre of it remains the Tarzan-like figure of the prehominid male who came down from the trees, saw a grassland teeming with game, picked up a weapon, and became a Mighty Hunter.’ There is something about this Tarzan figure which has them all mesmerized.
From chapter to giddy dazzling chapter she proceeds to develop her thesis that the Tarzanists are wrong. Our first move is not from the trees to the plains, but from the trees to the water. From the Miocene period where the weather was mild, heavy rainfall, flourishing forests and our ancestor could have been a gibbon or a gorilla, researchers take us to the Pliocene drought which lasted twelve million years. What happened to us along the way? Elaine Morgan calls this the 64,000 $ question. ‘What happened to them? Where did they go?’—to the water of course, led by the female. In the next nine chapters she takes up questions usually discussed by the evolution theorists, shakes them vigorously, drops all the loopholes one by one. It is best to quote her endlessly as her style is inimitable.
‘Why did they stand upright?’ Robert Ardrey says, ‘We learned to stand erect in the first place as a necessity of the hunting life’. But she says, wait a minute. We were quadrupeds. These statements imply that a quadruped suddenly discovered that he could move faster on two legs than on four. Try to imagine any other quadruped discovering that—a cat? a dog? a horse? —and you’ll see that it’s totally nonsensical. Other things being equal, four legs are bound to run faster than two. The bipedal development was violently unnatural.’
This problem could have been solved by dimorphims—the loss of hair could have gone further in one sex than the other. So it did, of course. But unfortunately for the Tarzanists it was the stay-at-home female who became nakedest, and the overheated hunter who kept the hair on his chest.
‘She began to turn into a naked ape for the same reason as the porpoise turned into a naked cetacean. the hippopotamus into a naked ungulate, the walrus into a naked pinniped, and the manatee into a naked sirenian. As her fur began to disappear she felt more and more comfortable in the water, and that is where she spent the Pliocene, patiently waiting for conditions in the interior to improve’.
Why has our sex life become so involved and confusing? The given answer, I need hardly say, she says, is that it all began when man became a hunter. He had to travel long distances after his prey and he began worrying about what the little woman might be up to. He was also anxious about other members of the hunting pack, because, Desmond Morris explains, ‘if the weaker males were going to be expected to cooperate on the hunt, they had to be given more sexual rights. The females would have to be more shared out.’
Thus it became necessary, so the story goes, to establish a system of ‘pair bonding’ to ensure that couples remained faithful for life. I quote: ‘The simplest and most direct method of doing this was to make the shared activities of the pair more complicated and more rewarding. In other words, to make sex sexier.’
To this end, the Naked Apes sprouted ear lobes, fleshy nostrils, and overted lips, all allegedly designed to stimulate one another to a frenzy. Mrs. A.’s nipples became highly erogenous, she invented and patented the female orgasm, and she learned to be sexually responsive at all times, even during pregnancy, ‘because with a one-male-one-female system, it would be dangerous to frustrate the male for too long a period. It might endanger the pair bond’. He might go off in a· huff, or look for another woman. Or even refuse to cooperate on the hunt.
All this is good stirring stuff, she says, but hard to take seriously. Wolf packs manage to cooperate without all this erotic paraphernalia. Our near relatives the gibbons remain faithful for life without ‘personalised’ frontal sex, without elaborate erogenous zones, without perennial female availability. Why couldn’t we? Above all, since when has increased sexiness been a guarantee of increased fidelity?
Her chapters on Speech, Man the Hunter, Private Politics go on in this learned hilarious style till we come to her own passion—what women want and the present and future, where her tone becomes serious, earnest. The book is a backdrop to her own position in the rich harvest of opinion on women’s liberation.
‘Freud, toward the end of his life, bewailed the fact that even after spending years trying to pinpoint it, he had never succeeded in finding out ‘what women want.’
It’s rather a silly question, she says. If anyone had assembled a string of names of well-known human beings—say, Albert Schweitzer, Attila the Hun, Casanova, Gandhi, Al Capone, Einstein, Henry Ford, Peter the Hermit, Gauguin, Elvis Presley—and asked him to encapsulate as answer to the question ‘What do men want’ he would not have found that too easy, either. She sees the mother child relationship as something desirable—does not agree with Kate Millett who solves the problem by saying: ‘The care of children, even from the period when their cognitive powers first emerge, is infinitely better left to the best trained practitioners of both sexes who have chosen it as a vocation’.
She illustrates a women’s state of mind with 2 or 3 children in the house by comparing it to a man pursued by three topless blondes. ‘It’s not that such a woman has become denatured and gone off children. But if you take our mythical man with his eye on the topless blonde, I believe you would find that if his footsteps were dogged by two or three topless blondes who hung around his office all day, demanding constant attention, quarelling, ‘helping’ with the book-keeping, following him to the lavatory, butting in on conferences, criticizing his methods, and every five minutes wanting help with their zippers and admiration of their knitting and if they never, never, never went away—then after five or six months you would have a man less than rapturous about topless blondes. It wouldn’t mean he had necessarily gone homosexual or frigid. (More likely he would have gone clean around the bend).’
It is not that housework should be paid, she pleads. But its economic value acknowledged. Summing up she says—what we surely mustn’t do is try to found a women’s movement on a kind of pseudo-male bonding, alleging the whole male sex to be a ferocious leopard, and whipping up hatred against it.
‘If we don’t go for hate, what should we go for?
First, as for any other sex-subject population, greater self-respect.Second, economic independence; because until every woman feels confident that she can at need support herself we will never quite eradicate the male suspicion that when we say, ‘I want love. I want a permanent relationship,’ we really mean, ‘I want a meal ticket, I want you to work and support me for the rest of my life.’ Third, the certainty of having no more children than she wants, and none at all if she doesn’t want any.
What it adds up to is that, with the advent of the pill, woman is beginning to get her finger on the genetic trigger. What she will do with it we cannot quite foresee.’
Feminist literature is described to be earnest to boring—amongst most people. Well, they say, how much can you beat the old drum? And indeed most of the literature is tedious, pointing at inequality exploitation and so on. In India (as I suppose in Asia, Africa and Latin America too) the books on women are of this kind—more like reports on status.
But out of UK and the USA—and perhaps the countries of Europe, (where the language is a barrier for me) there is a crop of delightful reading which impinges upon the female condition but with enormous elan, erudition and sometimes mischief. Books like Fear of Flying (Erica Jong), The Home (Penelope Mortimer), Patriarchal Attitudes (Eva Figes) can be read by men and women just for reading pleasure. If some self-identification takes place which disturbs, then okay, one more little victory for us—but it is not being sought with claws open.
Amrita Pritam’s The Skeleton, R.K. Narayan’s The Dark Room, are the nearest we have in the English language to Mortimer’s The Home. But one must wait for books which match up to The Descent of Woman. They would certainly relieve some of the monotony that has set into the women’s movement in India.
Devaki Jain, Economist, specializes in the field of Women’s Studies.