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A Bowen theory perspective on Melvin Konner’s Women After All: Sex, Evolution and the End of Male Supremacy

Authored by Stephanie Ferrera

Melvin Konner begins his book, Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy, stating: “This is a book with a very simple argument:  women are not equal to men; they are superior in many ways, and in most ways that will count in the future.”  (p. 3)  As part of his discussion on how humans evolved toward male supremacy, Konner introduces “an old distinction in sociology between gemeinschaft and gesellschaft—community and society.” (p. 159) Until about 10,000 years ago, the predominant mode of life was hunter-gatherer.  These were the “ultimate communities.”  People knew each other for life, women had a strong position as contributors to the group and had a voice in collective decision-making.  Sexual relations were relatively monogamous.  The turn from “community” to “society” came with the advent of agriculture which brought a dramatic increase in food production, accompanied by population growth, the ability to accumulate wealth, and the emergence of political hierarchies. “Organized violence became far more important and so, accordingly, did male aggression and complex male hierarchies.”  (p. 159)

These changes dramatically altered relations between the sexes.  High-ranking men began to “collect” women, with those at the top holding large harems.  Women were coerced into this system and adapted to it, a small percentage of women benefiting from the resources they and their children had through ties to high-ranking men and a larger percentage having little autonomy and low social status.  The worst off were low-ranking men who had little or no chance of having a wife or children, and were easily relegated to slavery or fighting wars.  Polygyny became widespread, accepted in most societies, and remains in practice today in parts of the world.

Konner introduces a concept from anthropology:  structural violence.  This includes slavery, ongoing warfare, torture, severe punishment of minor offenses, suppression of dissent, and many uses of force in which authoritarian rulers “kept control of lower orders of men and women.” (p. 177) In this way, violence becomes systemic, built into the institutions, policies, practices, and overall way of life that supports the control of resources and privilege in the hands of some at the expense of others.

What Konner calls “the darker side of history” calls to mind Bowen’s concept of societal regression.  Bowen had observed that families, when subjected to chronic, sustained anxiety, move toward increasing togetherness; there is pressure to think and act alike while independent thinking and individual responsibility are submerged.  In observing the larger society, he saw the same process.  With each step toward regression, new norms are established with a higher level of tension. “The endpoint of too much togetherness is reached when viable members desert the group and there is overwhelming emotional reactivity, violence and chaos.”  (Bowen 1978, 278)  Under such conditions, violence becomes the norm and is sustained in a family or a society.

Bowen and Konner are on strong common ground in looking at human nature and social process from a biological, evolutionary perspective.  There are differences in their views of how societies arrive at extreme stages of stratification and instability.  Konner puts emphasis on the role of male aggression, reinforced in male coalitions, resulting in a minority of males having undue control of resources.  Bowen sees a high, sustained level of chronic anxiety accompanied by a declining level of differentiation as the key variables.  Accordingly, Konner sees the rising status of women and their special leadership qualities as the avenue for social progress, while Bowen sees the efforts of individuals and groups toward a higher level of differentiation, with all that this entails, as the solution.  My own conclusion is that WOMEN AFTER ALL will be essential in bringing about the level of social change that our current problems demand, not through dominance or supremacy, but through maturity, self-awareness, wisdom, deep sense of community and responsibility, and all the strengths that Dr. Konner celebrates in his inspiring book.


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1 Comment on "A Bowen theory perspective on Melvin Konner’s Women After All: Sex, Evolution and the End of Male Supremacy"

  • Cecilia Guzman says

    Excellent summary and commentary of Dr. Konner’s book. It reminds me of another book called Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha who also explore the rise of agriculture as triggering a major shift in overall societal structure and gender role divides.

    In my opinion, increasing one’s level of differentiation of self is always the bottom line in producing fundamental sustainable change from the level of the family to the level of society.But I also think Bowen’s theory is a theory of action.

    I agree with Stephanie. Perhaps Dr. Konner’s book along with other like thinkers will provide the impetus, perspective, and knowledge necessary to trigger a paradigm shift in our society that will launch Homo sapiens into another epoch. It will require a certain “critical mass” of individuals with sufficient levels of differentiation to “take a stand”.

    Thank you Stephanie for your work on this book and your clarity of thought.

    Cecilia Guzman

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