The Descent of Man By Grayson Perry – A Review

In his Descent of Man, and Natural Selection in Relation to Sex Charles Darwin examined, what were considered at the time, to be the fundamental differences between the sexes in terms of their respective reproductive strategies and the subsequent social and ethical implications that came with them. In applying, what was, revolutionary biological theory to Homo Sapiens, Darwin had firmly located our species in the natural world.

This application of evolutionary theory to our species brought with it the use of the often misattributed and equally misunderstood concept: Survival of the Fittest. It is, or was Herbert Spencer’s idiom and its impact on the social perception of the sexes that has done so much to ensure the perpetuation of much of the social disparity we unfortunately see still today. By stating that there existed physiological division of labour between the sexes that hinged on their respective roles in the production of offspring (men produced and women reproduced), Spencer was able to provide seemingly scientific credibility to the pre-existing social dynamic; one that firmly placed white men at the top of the social and physical human family tree, leaving white women a distant second and those of other skin colours and cultural backgrounds barely on the tree at all. The concept also served to reinforce the existing, and equally odious, class divisions of the day. Those at the top were reassured, if ever they needed reassuring, that their place in the social hierarchy was inherent in their ‘breeding’ alone, not by centuries of Machiavellian manipulation and ruthless exploitation of others ­– they were, literally, “made of the right stuff”; those in the lower echelons, well, they weren’t. The blame cannot all be placed on Spencer’s shoulders though. He was, after all, born into, and lived in a prevailing social milieu that conditioned his thinking: the sexism inherent in his theory already existed and so, must therefore, have originated elsewhere. It does not require too great a leap of thought to determine from where it came.

It was another unwelcome survival of a bygone era, namely, monotheistic religion and its holy certitude of male superiority which ensured that whatever was discovered by the nascent scientific community females would, almost always, be subjected to social stigmatisation and inequality. Such is the depth of human ignorance, and so ingrained is the childish need to seek comfort in bigoted, archaic superstition and tradition, even among those considered to be learned, that any semblance of meaningful and permanent social change was almost guaranteed to fail or took place at a rate, so glacial, as to be almost useless to those in need of it. There are of course some exceptions to this, but one cannot claim for a moment that the influence of the Lord has done anything to further the cause of humanistic social advancement, especially when, from the outset, one half of the species were “designed” as a lesser being.

It is the requirement for social change that artist and agent provocateur Grayson Perry expounds upon in his book: The Descent of Man. The use of this title is itself a multi-faceted critique of Spencer’s notion and its effects. Firstly, in the case of idea of male ascendance and subsequent dominance and fact that it has become so ingrained in our thinking as to be seen as natural. Secondly that this acceptance has ensured that such an outdated concept has lingered for so long that it still blights so many people’s lives. And thirdly, in that the word: descent, is also a process of deterioration and degeneration. The effects of the current model of masculinity has guaranteed that while only the very few reap untold rewards by embodying this dubious quality, the vast majority exist to suffer.

As with his TV series All Man, Perry is adept at identifying and examining the various tribes of man, or rather: masculine tribes. From the mighty alpha males that make up the business elite to the violent council estate thug whose emotions pour out of their fists. He is careful to state that he is not attacking all men: so many men are also the victims of the tyranny of masculinity. By way of supplying proof of this Perry evokes personal experience to illustrate his argument, something that provides a welcome human element and credibility to what otherwise could end up as another rant against: The Man.

The essence of Perry’s discourse is that masculinity in its prevailing form is damaging, it is toxic to the vast majority of women that come into contact with it. Not only that: It is the root of unhappiness in men who do not cut “it” in the life-long race to be a real man. The ripples of this disenchantment then radiate out to affect everyone else in society. By casting a critical eye over the cultural signifiers that serve to perpetuate masculinity and its dominant social position, namely the gendering of colours, products, dress (The traditional business suit becomes a bland, ubiquitous, nonthreatening mask behind which the psychopathic Default Man lurks) and most of all: behaviour, we are all enslaved to The Man and his absolute need to be king of the hill. There is room for some of the old school traits, competitiveness, for example is not all bad when employed in moderation and the right context. To use a Spinal Tap analogy: If there were such a thing as a masculinity amp: it should be turned down from eleven; in fact, it should permanently be limited to two or three and always be used under supervision. If men (and by default everyone else) are to be genuinely happy and function as complete beings with a sense of self-worth, we must slay the tyrant king, abandon the worship of his image and stop trying to emulate his deeds and embrace a more tolerant, feeling, expressive and caring attitude. This would also help to free us all from the highly unhealthy need to compare ourselves to each other via the current yardstick of success (money, status, big cars, big houses, bigger houses, more money, power, more money, another bigger house, a big garage for the cars, more money), which is itself skewed by the heavy gravitational pull of the black hole that is: masculinity. At the end of the book he lists a set of Men’s rights: The right to be vulnerable, the right to be weak, the right to be wrong, the right to be intuitive, the right not to know, the right to be uncertain, the right to be flexible, the right not be ashamed of any of these.

I have to say that I’m with Grayson on this and have since long been before he even wrote his book. However, there are some areas in his argument that, I feel, need developing. One of the practical ways, he suggests, in which humanity’s lot can be improved is in the area of employment: more women should be doing more of everything, particularly in the rarefied environs of the male dominated boardroom. With this I also agree, but, how sure can we be that anything will improve once women are at the helm? If we look at powerful women, even though there have been so few they have had the alarming tendency to be as bad as the powerful men. Margaret Thatcher’s term in office was in and of itself a victory for women and feminism; but look at her record: she decimated British industry, instigated the free market economy that would lead the deregulation of the banks and the 2007 financial nightmare, waged a protracted war with the IRA, considered Augusto Pinochet a friend, failed to appoint a single woman to her cabinet, sold off council housing to the benefit of property magnates and Tory cronies, and took milk from the mouths of infant school children. Are we sure she wasn’t a man? Then there’s International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde who failed to challenge an arbitrary payment of £355 million worth of taxpayers’ money to a friend of Nicolas Sarkozy, while she was French Finance Minister. How manly. What about the impeachment of the South Korean President on the grounds of corruption? And what of the women who served as guards in the Concentration and Death camps throughout Nazi occupied Europe or Queen Victoria, who was happy to reign over the largest empire in history, including holding the title: Empress of India. And take Theresa May, not only did she not win a vote in the Conservative Party’s leadership election for a leader, she was not voted into office by the people of Britain; so where exactly is the mandate for her to lead the nation? And when it comes to her first real test as a leader, Brexit, she threatened to employ the Royal Privilege, which would have allowed her, by way of a unilateral decision, to overrule parliament: in essence debasing the democratic process. Luckily, there was another woman, one with principles, who prevented this by way of an appeal to the High Courts.

One of the bases of Perry’s argument is an often cited one: namely that women’s minds are different from men’s and so, therefore, is their behaviour. Women are shown to be less inclined to high risk behaviour, something that would be an attractive quality in political leaders and those controlling the financial and business sectors. This of course is a very fine thing. But, can it be said to be true of the women who would seek out these positions? Would the system that is in place allow them to behave in more altruistic ways than their male counterparts and would they even be inclined to change that system if indeed they could? How can we say with any degree of certitude that the women who wish to work in high level politics and finance are not just as self-serving, prone to cronyism and corrupt as the men who currently hold all the cards? If change is to be meaningful, that is beneficial to all, then whoever takes change must have motives above and beyond their own advancement and person success, irrespective of their gender, sex or any other criteria.

While I fully support gender equality in all forms, I’m just not sure that very much would change just because the person at the top has a vagina. In its own way the notion of women being somehow more ethical than men simply because they are female is its own form of sexism. There is the faint whiff of: the fairer sex, that should raise alarm bells. Why shouldn’t women exhibit the same despicable personality traits as men? If power corrupts absolutely, then surely women are just as corruptible as men? And, while advancement up the corporate ladder may be very beneficial for the very few women who have, and may, in the future make it, their presence may in fact do very little to improve the lives of everyone else. Having said that, even if the female presence put but a small dent in the masculine armour it would be worth it; it would be a step on the road in the right direction, but should not be viewed as the final destination.

The problem with line of enquiry that Perry holds, whether in this book or his work in general, is that it relies too heavily on identity politics. While this is the cause celeb on the Left side of the fence, in the real world it does little to promote any change and in fact goes a long way to ensure the preservation of the status quo. By reducing politics to personal identity everything becomes about “me” and those people exactly like “me”, which should come as no surprise in a time of rampant narcissism and solipsism. This has two very negative effects. Firstly: the political landscape becomes overpopulated with interest groups and sub-groups who generally fail to take into consideration anything that does not affect or represent them directly and who in many cases are openly hostile to those who appear, but may not necessarily be, their opposite. Just look to the LGTB community by way of an example. The fight to end sexuality driven persecution is an important and very understandable one, but pay close attention and it doesn’t take long for that “community’s” own brand of bigotry to reveal itself. Racism is rife here, so too is homophobia. How can people who are subjected to chauvinism be so capable of perpetuating it? The answer is depressingly familiar. It allows them to feel superior, it unites them against a perceived common foe, it allows them to pursue their own agenda. By adhering to Identity Politics, by viewing membership of a minority group, whether on the basis of skin colour, gender, sexual preference or whatever else one may choose, as a revolutionary act the very notion of revolution is cheapened and rendered useless. One can be a revolutionary by simply: being. No work is needed; it is enough to simple state that one is: X or Y or Z and occasionally attend a protest march. Possibly the most damaging aspect of this is that it does the work of those who benefit from and wish to perpetuate the status quo for them. The internecine warfare that plagues the Left renders what should be a united opposition divided by its own hand. If anything is to change these groups must realise that they are all oppressed by the same group: the wealthy minority. Until they digest this simple fact they must content themselves with celebrating hollow symbolic victories which only serve to preserve their sense of self-worth and reinforce their own narrow-mindedness.

Ultimately, I think my issue with Perry’s book is that while it serves as a vehicle to promote debate it doesn’t provide real answers, other than those that we have heard before and which have largely failed to achieve meaningful Humanistic change. Again, like so much of what is produced by any number of commentators: it is reactionary, not revolutionary.

What we really need is a shift in thinking on a species level one that is truly universal and therefore instigates true equality, respect and worthiness for those ignored and unappreciated by the current system.  It may seem like an impossible task, but there is a precedent. One of the other areas where Perry could further his understanding is anthropology. Some of his references in this area while honest are rather simplistic. I have written previously on the work of anthropologist Chris Knight, his theory on the origins of culture provides, I believe, the mechanism for change that Perry is arguing for. Knight suggests that the birth of symbolic culture was an act of organized revolution by females in order to overthrow the prevailing social dynamic, which was dominated by manipulative and aggressive alpha males. They did this by organising themselves and all of the subordinate males who were also oppressed by the dominant males, via a sex strike, into a unified group, a genuinely united entity that dictated what was best for the group as a whole and would punish those who transgressed against the common good. While Knight’s work is historical, there are modern examples of how the fundamentals of his theory can be applied and deliver results. In Belgium, Kenya and Columbia sex strikes have been used to create governments and lower the rates of gang violence. With political events, particularly in the United States, taking such a disastrous turn, perhaps the women and men marching against the new president, arguably the ultimate example of Default Man, could use this opportunity to do something less reactionary and truly revolutionary.

The descent of Man By Grayson Perry Penguin Books, Limited 2016.                                              


Why Anthropology Matters: Part Two

There has been a definite resurgence of feminism of late. Most media outlets now feature feminist issues with a degree of prominence and seriousness that quite possibly has never been seen or felt before. What strain of feminism you subscribe to depends largely on each individual personal disposition and experience. There are those who lean-to the more militant variety, for want of a better word, who see all men and quite a number of women as the enemy, while at the other end of the spectrum are those who are perhaps a little more lenient with regard to the other sex and may even welcome the support of men in overcoming gender prejudice. As can be expected there is much dogma in support of and in opposition to every shade of feminism, both of which are used by feminists against feminists, as-well-as by those who would attack the “movement” as a whole, which goes a long way to explaining why genuine change has been so elusive.

It is possible that things could very different though. If more people knew about what is, quite possibly, the most powerful of all feminist arguments, which was developed, ironically, by a male anthropologist. Employing both social and physical anthropology in his book Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture, Chris Knight suggests that the creation of culture was the product of a social revolution by our female ancestors.

It is most likely that our early ancestors had developed a social system akin to those found in high order primates, such as chimpanzees; the harem system allowed the most dominant alpha male to jealously monopolize sexual access to ovulating females. Given that only a few females with a group would be ovulating at anyone time, this was a relatively straightforward task, he could with a high degree of confidence ensure that any offspring produced in the group were his; that this suits the dominant male is obvious, it is, however, not so good news if you were a subordinate male or especially if you were female. The development of our large brains meant that certain physical concessions had to be made: in order for females to give birth our brain must develop after birth. The result of this is that our offspring are far more dependent on their parents than those of other animals. This put our female ancestors under huge pressures – it is virtually impossible to forage for food and carry a baby at the same time. The only way for both mother and offspring to survive was an increased investment from a male. It was paramount that the alpha male system be smashed; to achieve this our female ancestors employed landscape-wide solidarity, at the centre of which was a revolutionary strategy, what Knight terms: the sex strike.

As a result of living in close physical proximity female reproductive cycles synchronized, this enabled them to deny dominant males the chance to guard and mate with females as they began to ovulate, he simply could not mate with all of them at once. This strategy, therefore, did not only benefit females but also the subordinate males, as they were now afforded the opportunity to procreate with the unguarded females, so it was in their interest to cooperate with the females, to support the sex strike. Initially this would have all relied entirely on actual physiological signals: real menstrual blood. However, Camilla Power, a colleague of Knight’s, has extended the theory. She realized that women did not always need to physically synchronize their cycles or display real blood. Once the groundwork had been laid, once that the signal was recognizable and the system accepted, women could fake menstruation using red ochre and elaborate symbolic display to state their intentions, displays that showed that while they bled, or pretended to bleed, they were also not human and male. The act of “becoming” another species and another sex only serves to make the messages even more unambiguous. There could be no mixed signals, no mistake in what is being asserted: an emphatic NO!

We can glimpse what may be recordings of this type of ritual action. Cave paintings in various sites in southern Africa show female figures with penises and horns; while samples of red ochre suggest an explosion in its use dated to between 100,000 and 120,000 thousand years ago. This combined with detailed analysis of female initiation rituals amongst various traditional African societies (the Khoisan for example), many of which feature neophytes dancing as if they were the male Eland (a large antelope), while the other women of the camp move as if mating with her. It is most improbable that this striking similarity is coincidental – there are far too many examples of rituals at the time of puberty which link menstrual taboos and hunting for that to be the case.

Having broken the shackles of the alpha males’ system of domination the females had to ensure that the males would stick around and provide the food that both they and their children needed. It was vital that they continue to act collectively: in doing so they could force the males to hunt and bring home the precious spoils. In playing their part males had to police their own and each others behavior through what can be seen as peer group pressure. Thus any infringement of the new social rules by any male, especially in relation to the food they were responsible for supplying and/or the temptation of illicit sexual relationships, would result in the sex strike being reinstated – in short if one male were to break the rules all males are punished. What is perhaps most important here, is that it was in the majority of male’s interest to support the action of the females; for in doing so they greatly improved their chances of mating, thus improving their own reproductive fitness. The crucial point of this theory is that society benefits when females are in full control of their bodies.

This may sound farfetched but in 2009, during a period of political instability, various Kenyan women’s organization organized a sex strike to force a resolution to the troublesome situation (Even prostitutes were offered financial compensation to join in). While the sex strikes’ impact has not been scientifically examined, Kenya did have a stable government after one week of the strike. There was also a call for a sex strike in Belgium, in 2011, after no stable government could be formed.

Perhaps if the work by Knight and Power was more well-known, or, dare I say it taught as part of a compulsory anthropology course in British schools, we may begin to see, not only genuinely empowered young women but also young men who could, and I’m sure would, act in solidarity with them. Why? because it would be in their interest to do so. Rather than today’s sham “left wing”, with its fragmented self-interest groups and divisive identity politics, there would be a united front of groups who realize that they have more in common with each other than many in their ranks would think or care to admit too, if only they could see past the dogma. First and foremost it would be clear that they are all the subject of social repression largely by the same groups. With this realization and the creation of a true, critically thinking – rather than purely reactionary – opposition, perhaps there would be a genuine chance for real and meaningful social change that benefits the many, not the few.

The Importance of Anthropology: Part One

The vast majority of people have no idea what anthropology is. I know this through personal experience; I hold two degrees in anthropology, and have spent considerable time, when asked, explaining the subject. Before asking the question, many people offer a speculative stab at what it might be. Oh, that’s the study of ants isn’t it? That’s to do with dinosaurs, right? Wrong.

Of course I don’t begrudge people their ignorance. Anthropology isn’t one of those disciplines that has a prominent position at most universities much less the media, unlike physics or astronomy, both of which have been featured heavily on the BBC, thanks to Brian Cox, who is now something of a nerdy sex symbol. I had never heard of anthropology while I was at school and I would back myself in stating that not too many of today’s students will have heard of it either. What a shame that is.

Anthropology is the study of what makes us human – it looks to explain our physical evolution as well as our cultural practices: their origins, development and interaction. It has been described as the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences. Anyone who has studied anthropology or has any familiarity with it will understand how incredibly important it is. This is especially so in an era where populations are more fluid than they have ever been and there is so much more contact between people of different cultures.

It would have been easy to mention race in the previous paragraph, I did not do so for one simple reason – it does not exist. We know this because anthropology (along with biology and the study of genetics) has taught us so: that there are physical differences between humans is obvious, that some of these differences can be shared by groups of humans is also plain to see, but, the notion that these physical variations can be used taxonomically to discern various subspecies within our genus and that these can be placed in a hierarchical system is without any scientific basis. As is the idea, at the very core of racism, that the variations in human physiology can be connected to behavioral traits both positive and negative. As Anthropologist and Geneticist, Jennifer Raff, in her critique of Nicolas Wades’ preposterous book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, makes very clear:

‘Humans are incredibly similar genetically. We only differ by about 0.1 percent of our genome. Compare that to chimpanzees, our closest relative. Individual chimps from the same population show more genetic differences than humans from different continents.’

As does Agustin Fuentes, Primatologist and Physical Anthropologist:

There are no genetic patterns that link all populations in just Africa, just Europe or just Asia to one another to the exclusion of other populations in other places. If you compare geographically separated populations within “continental” areas you get the same kind of variation as you would between them.

Just think if anthropology were taught in schools, this genetic knowledge along with that of the human fossil record could be used to destroy any glimmer of racism before it even had the chance to take hold in the minds of the young. If children were taught this then surely in time the very breath that feeds racism would be stifled to nothing.

If that wasn’t enough, then think of the benefit of teaching children more about different cultures. The emphasis here being the very human need for culture; that culture doesn’t only relate to that which is in a gallery or a section of a newspaper; but that culture lives and breathes in each and every one of us. It is inevitable that future generations will interact with a variety of increasingly diverse cultures and that this contact will lead in turn to a more culturally diverse population, as members of groups marry and raise mix cultured (not race) offspring. We should be careful though not to fall into the trap of cultural relativism, which in some quarters has made something of a comeback. Respecting different cultures is one thing, but being deferential to any of the barbaric practices that are forced onto people in the name of culture is unacceptable. Any cultural institution or practice that is used as a tool of oppression must be fought at all costs.

Over the last few years there has been a resurgence of feminist thinking. I have my problems with identity politics, but one cannot argue with the notion that women are, in far too many areas of life – in far too many cultures, a distinct underclass. While some of those calling themselves feminists argue the finer points of dogma and seem intent on only creating further inter and intra-group schisms, many women (and men) are totally unaware of the powerful role anthropology could play in not only gaining social equality, but, more importantly emancipation.

Part two will follow shortly.