In my last post, I pointed to one problem with the argument. At the time of European contact the Tasmanian Aborigines were living a primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle. But they weren't peaceful egalitarians. European observers were shocked by the low status of women, the sexual jealousy and violence, and the intertribal warfare.
Matters in these small hunter-gatherer bands were settled forcibly. And it was men who possessed the force to decide issues.
There's another problem with Christopher Ryan's argument. He uses as evidence for his theory the family practices of certain tribes such as the Mosuo in China:
The Mosuo people of China practice a form of courtship and sexual interaction anthropologists have called "walking marriage." This form of "traditional marriage" consists of women and men being completely free to sleep with whomever they like, children being cared for by the woman's family - her brothers assuming all paternal responsibility. Biological paternity is a non-issue among the Mosuo. Every tryst is seen as an independent event, with no expectation of permanence or even continuity expected in amorous relationships.
Ryan overstates the casualness of relationships, but the gist of it is correct. Ryan also writes, when discussing the practice of sexual gossip in various tribes:
One very interesting exception to this that we discuss in Sex at Dawn is the Mosuo people, of China. Part of their view of romance is that sexual gossip is deeply shameful and must never happen. Each person's sexual autonomy is absolute (men's and women's) and any attempt to limit this essential freedom by innuendo, declarations of jealousy, or any other means is strongly discouraged and ridiculed. As one Mosuo woman put it, "Women and men should not marry, for love is like the seasons—it comes and goes." Of course, the Mosuo have a family system which doesn't depend on married couples to provide social stability.
So here we have a claim that a magical dream society for liberals, one in which each person's sexual autonomy is absolute, actually exists in the provinces of China.
So what's the problem? Ryan predicted that the hunter-gatherers would be the sexual autonomists and that the agriculturalists would be the property owning possessives. But if we take the Tasmanian Aborigines and the Chinese Mosuo it seems to be the other way around. It is the peasants, not the hunter-gatherers, who institute the sexual autonomy.
Which leads me to a (speculative) theory of my own. It might be true that once you give up being nomadic foragers and hunters and live instead as agriculturalists that property issues become more important. But how should the property be transmitted from one generation to the next?
In a society in which female sexuality is not carefully regulated, it makes sense for the property to be passed down along the female line. After all, in such circumstances a man would know that his sisters' children would be closely related to him. But he couldn't have much certainty about any offspring of his own.
In these societies, fatherhood was not very important. What mattered was being an uncle. Men would typically live with their sisters, helping to raise their sisters' children (a matrifocal system).
These societies were not strictly speaking matriarchal. Men would still run the tribal councils. And there remained a division of labour, with men typically being the hunters and warriors, and women tilling the fields and looking after the homes. But the organisation of family life might be left to the older women.
This is what happens with the Mosuo. Men spend their lives living with their mothers and sisters, handing over whatever they produce to the senior woman in the house. The men get to visit a "wife" in another house during the night, but return home to their mother's house during the day. The power to veto relationships lies with the senior women.
Such "uncle" societies have existed in parts of Africa and Asia. A ship's doctor in the German colony of Cameroon described the situation there in the nineteenth century as follows:
With a large number of tribes, inheritance is based on maternity. Paternity is immaterial. Brothers and sisters are only the children of one mother. A man does not bequeath his property to his children, but to the children of his sister, that is to say, to his nephews and nieces, as his nearest demonstrable blood relatives. A chief of the Way people explained to me in horrible English: "My sister and I are certainly blood relatives, consequently her son is my heir; when I die, he will be the king of my town." "And your father?" I inquired. "I don't know what that means, 'my father,' answered he. Upon my putting to him the question whether he had no children, rolling on the ground with laughter, he answered that, with them, men have no children, only women.
But what happens if female sexuality is tied more closely to monogamous marriage? Then men can have more confidence in their paternity. They can then form their own households and pass property directly to their own children. Men have a more direct reason to work productively to sustain a household of their own.
Consider the case of "Joe", a young Mosuo man who has little role in society until his sister has children:
"If you could afford to buy a souvenir stand, would you?"
Joe laughs, almost spitting in the direction of the knickknack vendors. "Mosuo are not shopkeepers."
"So, what do you do?"
"I have a good time. I help my uncles and cousins build houses. I'm young. I have no status until my sister has a child. Then, I'm important."
It's not that he doesn't do anything. But he's not responsible for a household of his own. His incentive to work is not as great as a man seeking the resources to marry and support a family. Is it any wonder then that the societies which eventually produced the dominant civilisations were not matrifocal, uncle societies but paternal ones?
It's not that the advantage runs all one way. A danger of paternal societies is that men withdraw excessively into their fatherhood role, neglecting the communal leadership that is reserved for men in uncle societies.
But even so, the evidence seems very clear that father societies were the ones to create wealth and more sophisticated forms of civilisation. The Mosuo, unsurprisingly, suffered from grinding poverty for much of the twentieth century and even now are experiencing encroachments from the Han population.