This is one bold author. Dr. Leonard Shlain poses big questions. And as the visiting scholar for the 22nd annual Feaver-MacMinn Seminar, Shlain shared some of his large ideas with students, faculty and staff at the University of Oklahoma, leaving behind some fascinating thoughts to ponder.
Shlain is chairman of laparoscopic surgery at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, and is associate professor of surgery at the University of California at San Francisco.
Meacham Auditorium in Oklahoma Memorial Union was nearly full for the evening Feaver-MacMinn public lecture March 2. Shlain delivered a fast-paced, multimedia PowerPoint presentation of over 400 images highlighting his proposition that the rise of reading and writing by the masses fundamentally reconfigured the human brain and brought about profound changes in history, religion and gender relations. He explored the themes of his best-selling book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image.
“How did a surgeon come to write about goddesses?” he asked.
A trip to the Mediterranean on the heels of completing the 1991 book, Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light, got him to thinking about the goddess.
“In the ancient world, men and women worshipped women,” he said. “Temples originally were consecrated to goddesses. But 3,000 years ago, the goddess began losing power. The three religions of the West – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – denied the existence of the goddess.”
“The thug who mugged the goddess is literacy. Writing transformed cultures. The alphabet transformed the world.”
Shlain said he began wondering what immense event occurred that changed the sex of a god. “The thug who mugged the goddess is literacy. Writing transformed cultures. The alphabet transformed the world.”
The surgeon-author-educator-inventor-speaker said that while there are many explanations about the decline of the goddess, he realized that the goddess began losing power at the same time people began to learn to read and write. “It occurred to me that the process of reading and writing could have changed the structure of the human brain and somehow shifted everyone into a patriarchal and misogynous mode.”
Tracing our evolution as humans, Shlain postulates that our brains split in half as we became predators. In order to become predators, humans became cleverer and this cleverness caused our brains to get bigger. That made giving birth more difficult and caused death for both babies and mothers.
So nature’s solution to this problem, he continued, was to pull out the neuronal pathways that determine instinct and culture. Humans, now born with virtually no instincts, acquired culture through language. But in order to accommodate this new development, our brains had to change to handle it.
The shift to writing and left-brained thinking upset the balance between men and women, ushering in the decline of the feminine.
“Some 90 percent of our language centers were deposited and rewired in the left hemisphere of the brain, where linear functions reside, such as logic and rationality,” he said. “The remaining functions took up residence in the right hemisphere, where information was processed in a totally different fashion. The right hemisphere can see the big picture.”
The shift to writing and left-brained thinking upset the balance between men and women, ushering in the decline of the feminine. Shlain tracked this trend through the Dark Ages, the Gutenberg Press, the Witch hunts and the Renaissance.
The simultaneous discoveries of photography and the electromagnetic field, which led to the development of television, again changed everything, Shlain contends. “It’s no coincidence that the first feminist movement, the Suffragettes, occurred right after the invention of photography. The first real feminist movement was inspired in the Sixties by the first generation raised on television. We now live in a society that is awash in images, and not coincidentally, feminine values are rising.”
Host professor for this year’s seminar was Sarah Tracy. The seminar was held March 1-5 and was coordinated by the College of Liberal Studies. It is endowed to honor two OU faculty members who exemplified excellence in teaching – J. Clayton Feaver, distinguished David Ross Boyd professor of philosophy, and Paul MacMinn, professor of psychology, Honors College, and dean of students.
Update: The College of Liberal Studies was renamed the College of Professional and Continuing Studies in 2017.