Sex, Time and Power: How Women's Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution

Shlain, Leonard

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: Nov-12-2004


Among animals only humans have difficulty giving birth. While other primates deliver their babies with little fuss, women experience painful labor and childbirth. The explanation for this discrepancy lies in the size of the human head at birth. As hominids evolved ever larger and larger brains, the fetal head had to increase in size at birth. Eventually the head almost outstripped the female pelvis's ability to expand enough to allow it through the birth canal. This delicate balance between fetus and pelvis accounts for human fetal and maternal morbidity and mortality.

As a response to the growing threat of childbirth, human females evolved away from estrus (i.e. sexual receptivity only when ovulating) to the menstrual cycle and continuous sexual receptivity. The mysterious moon-related cycle led women to formulate the concept of "time" and make the connection between sex and pregnancy. It also allowed them to refuse sex when they were ovulating.

Women then taught time consciousness to men, and men used their growing self-consciousness to begin to establish control over nature (and women). The sense of being-in-time led inevitably to awareness of mortality. This, in turn, stimulated humans to create gods and religion in order to ward off death anxiety.


Dr. Shlain is a practicing surgeon at California Medical Center in San Francisco. In his earlier book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, he argued that the development of writing and literacy led to the decline of the cult of the goddess and the development of patriarchal gods. In this book Dr. Shlain moves several steps further back into human pre-history, to explore the origin of self-consciousness. This project is neither modest nor temperate, but Dr. Shlain carries it off with a wonderful mixture of art, science, and panache.

The author draws from history, myth, literature, and the visual arts, as well as from biology, anthropology, and evolutionary science to support his theses. This is truly a fascinating and provocative narrative. There is no question that Shlain tells a good story, but does his story stand up under scientific scrutiny? Has Dr. Shlain written a finely constructed fiction, or revealed a deep truth about human evolution?

I place my bet on the former, but that does not in the least detract from the enjoyment of reading Sex, Time, and Power. The evolution of consciousness is a total mystery. Dr. Shlain brings the mystery into undeniable focus, even if his solution proves to be off the mark.



Place Published

New York



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