The Flintstonization of Prehistory
“Judging from the social habits of man as he now exists” is anything but a reliable method for understanding prehistory (though admittedly, Darwin had little else to go on). The search for clues to the distant past among the overwhelming detail of the immediate present tends to generate narratives closer to self-justifying myth than to science.
The word myth has been debased and cheapened in modern usage; it’s often used to refer to something false, a lie. But this use misses the deepest function of myth, which is to lend narrative order to apparently disconnected bits of information, the way constellations group impossibly distant stars into tight, easily recognizable patterns that are simultaneously imaginary and real. Psychologists David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner explain, “Mythology is the loom on which [we] weave the raw materials of daily experience into a coherent story.” This weaving becomes tricky indeed when we mythologize about the daily experience of ancestors separated from us by twenty or thirty-thousand years or more. All too often, we inadvertently weave our own experiences into the fabric of prehistory. We call this widespread tendency to project contemporary cultural proclivities into the distant past “Flintstonization.”
Just as the Flintstones were “the modern stone-aged family,” contemporary scientific speculation concerning prehistoric human life is often distorted by assumptions that seem to make perfect sense. But these assumptions can lead us far from the path to truth.
Flintstonization has two parents: a lack of solid data and the psychological need to explain, justify, and celebrate one’s own life and times. But for our purposes, Flintstonization has at least three intellectual grandfathers: Hobbes, Rousseau, and Malthus.
Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), a lonely, frightened war refugee in Paris, was Flintstoned when he looked into the mists of prehistory and conjured miserable human lives that were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” He conjured a prehistory very much like the world he saw around him in seventeenth-century Europe, yet gratifyingly worse in every respect. Propelled by a very different psychological agenda, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) looked at the suffering and filth of European societies and thought he saw the corruption of a pristine human nature. Travelers’ tales of simple savages in the Americas fueled his romantic fantasies. The intellectual pendulum swung back toward the Hobbesian view a few decades later when Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) claimed to mathematically demonstrate that extreme poverty and its attendant desperation typify the eternal human condition. Destitution, he argued, is intrinsic to the calculus of mammalian reproduction. As long as population increases exponentially, doubling each generation (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc.), and farmers can increase the food supply only by adding acreage mathematically (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.), there will never—can never—be enough for everyone. Thus, Malthus concluded that poverty is as inescapable as the wind and the rain. Nobody’s fault. Just the way it is. This conclusion was very popular with the wealthy and powerful, who were understandably eager to make sense of their good fortune and justify the suffering of the poor as an unavoidable fact of life.
Darwin’s eureka moment was a gift from two terrible Thomases and one friendly Fred: Hobbes, Malthus, and Flintstone, respectively. By articulating a detailed (albeit erroneous) description of human nature and the sorts of lives human beings lived in prehistory, Hobbes and Malthus provided the intellectual context for Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Unfortunately, their thoroughly Flintstoned assumptions are fully integrated into Darwin’s thinking and persist to the present day.
The sober tones of serious science often mask the mythical nature of what we’re told about prehistory. And far too often, the myth is dysfunctional, inaccurate, and self-justifying.
Our central ambition for this book is to distinguish some of the stars from the constellations. We believe that the generally accepted myth of the origins and nature of human sexuality is not merely factually flawed, but destructive, sustaining a false sense of what it means to be a human being. This false narrative distorts our sense of our capacities and needs. It amounts to false advertising for a garment that fits almost no one. But we’re all supposed to buy and wear it anyway.
Like all myths, this one seeks to define who and what we are and thus what we can expect and demand from one another. For centuries, religious authorities disseminated this defining narrative, warning of chatty serpents, deceitful women, forbidden knowledge, and eternal agony. But more recently, it’s been marketed to secular society as hard science.
Examples abound. Writing in the prestigious journal Science, anthropologist Owen Lovejoy suggested, “The nuclear family and human sexual behavior may have their ultimate origin long before the dawn of the Pleistocene [1.8 million years ago].” Well-known anthropologist Helen Fisher concurs, writing, “Is monogamy natural?” She gives a one-word answer: “Yes.” She then continues, “Among human beings … monogamy is the rule.”
Many different elements of human prehistory seem to nest neatly into each other in the standard narrative of human sexual evolution. But remember, that Indian seemed to answer Cortés’s question, and it seemed indisputable to Pope Urban VIII and just about everyone else that the Earth remained solidly at the center of the solar system. With a focus on the presumed nutritional benefits of pair-bonding, zoologist and science writer Matt Ridley demonstrates the seduction in this apparent unity: “Big brains needed meat … [and] food sharing allowed a meaty diet (because it freed men to risk failure in pursuit of game) … [and] food sharing demanded big brains (without detailed calculating memories, you could easily be cheated by a free-loader).” So far, so good. But now Ridley inserts the sexual steps in his dance: “The sexual division of labor promoted monogamy (a pair bond now being an economic unit); monogamy led to neotenous sexual selection (by putting a premium on youthfulness in mates).” It’s a waltz, with one assumption spinning into the next, circling round and round in “a spiral of comforting justification, proving how we came to be as we are.”
Note how each element anticipates the next, all coming together in a tidy constellation that seems to explain human sexual evolution.
The distant stars fixed in the standard constellation include:
- what motivated prehuman males to “invest” in a particular female and her children;
- male sexual jealousy and the double standard concerning male versus female sexual autonomy;
- the oft-repeated “fact” that the timing of women’s ovulation is “hidden”;
- the inexplicably compelling breasts of the human female;
- her notorious deceptiveness and treachery, source of many country and blues classics;
- and of course, the human male’s renowned eagerness to screw anything with legs—an equally rich source of musical material.
This is what we’re up against. It’s a song that is powerful, concise, self-reinforcing, and playing on the radio all day and all night … but still wrong, baby, oh so wrong.
The standard narrative is about as scientifically valid as the story of Adam and Eve. In many ways, in fact, it is a scientific retelling of the Fall into original sin as depicted in Genesis—complete with sexual deceit, prohibited knowledge, and guilt. It hides the truth of human sexuality behind a fig leaf of anachronistic Victorian discretion repackaged as science. But actual—as opposed to mythical—science has a way of peeking out from behind the fig leaf.