by Leonard Shlain
Penguin Books, 2003
Review by Jodi Forschmiedt, M.Ed. on Jan 2nd 2005
In this ambitious tome Shlain sweeps the millennia, suggesting
that all of the puzzling or bizarre human behaviors seen nowhere else in the
animal world boil down to a simple economic truth: women need iron-rich food
(meat) that only men can acquire; and men need sexual access to women.
Shlain traces the origins of our sexual issues back to the early
days of bipedalism. Having become
upright and developed large brains (and therefore large heads), humans had a problem
unique to the species. Childbirth was
so difficult and dangerous that fertile women were likely to die that way. And so, Shlain suggests, females figured out
the connection between sexual intercourse, pregnancy, childbirth, and
death. Having assessed the risk, they
began to refuse to copulate.
Clearly, a species cannot survive if it fails to reproduce, so a
series of adaptations ensured that offspring would be produced. The first: iron deficiency.
Human females lose blood, and therefore iron, with every menstrual
cycle. They lose more iron to their
fetuses during pregnancy, and the blood loss that comes with childbirth
depletes their stores even further. The
result is a constant need for iron-rich food to maintain health and vitality.
In contrast, human males do not lose their stored iron on a
regular basis, and therefore could live quite well on an all-plant diet.
Hence the deal. In order
to ensure the propagation of the species, Mother Nature endowed men with a
hyperactive sex drive. Males, wanting
sex, will hunt and bring women the meat that they need. Females, unable to hunt due to menstruation,
pregnancy, and the care of small children, will dole out sex to their
From this early transaction flowed the tense relations between the
sexes that continues to this day.
Shlain painstakingly discusses human issues such as misogyny,
homosexuality, incest, prostitution, and pornography within that framework; and
uses it to propose explanations for some reproductive mysteries, such as the purpose
of menstruation, the female orgasm, and early menopause. Even language, Shlain claims, came about as
a means for males to convince females to bestow their favors upon the smoothest
Parts of Shlain's argument seem tenuous, with a little too much
conjecture pulling together the threads to fit the overall thesis. For example, Shlain feels certain that it
was the females of the human tribe who first understood the concept of time, an
inspiration brought about by their cyclical menstruation. But it seems to me that the natural world
provides more than enough opportunities to observe the cyclical nature of time
(night follows day, the moon's appearance and disappearance, the tides, the
seasons, animal migration, etc). The
ability to use time to plan and anticipate future events may have been imparted
to men by menstruating women, but a hard conclusion seems unwarranted.
Sex, Time and Power is aimed at an educated lay audience. For those readers (like me) the book is a fascinating journey
through evolutionary theory.
Anthropologists and biologists will undoubtedly find much to dismiss or
contradict. Shlain is a surgeon with an
abiding interest in evolution and sexuality.
His work provides an excellent bridge for the public to access those subjects.
© 2004 Jodi
Jodi Forschmiedt, M.Ed.
reads, writes, and teaches in Seattle, Washington.