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The Origins of Societal Patriarchy and its Moral Consequences

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Our March 2022 Tanner Lectures are given by Richard Wrangham, the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. The overall title of these Tanner Lectures is: "The Evolution of Societal Patriarchy."

A unique and puzzling feature of human behavior is that individuals routinely sacrifice their own selfish interests for the sake of a wider good. Conventional theory has failed to explain the evolution of this “groupishness.” Wrangham argues that human groupishness evolved as a result of a novel ability: unlike other species, Homo sapiens could use language to conspire against resented rivals and kill them. Victims of these executions tended to be domineering bullies, nonconformists and other kinds of selfish personalities. Socially approved executions meant that antisocial behavior was selected against, while groupishness became positively favored. This evolutionary process led to the domination of social groups by coalitions of breeding males, a system that continues today in the form of societal patriarchy.

This lecture is the second of two lectures and is entitled: The Origins of Societal Patriarchy and its Moral Consequences

There are two types of patriarchy: domestic and societal. Domestic patriarchy describes relationships within families, and is not universal: some wives dominate their husbands. By contrast, societal patriarchy is a cultural universal, because institutions such as law and religion universally grant men authority over women. Societal patriarchy is not found in other species. In this lecture Wrangham argues that societal patriarchy has its origins in the late Pleistocene when a community of male elders began using coordinated violence to maintain political control, and that the same essential dynamic is maintained today throughout the world. Ascribing the strongly patriarchal nature of human society to a deep evolutionary process does not mean that societal patriarchy is inevitable, but it does point to psychological biases that help to perpetuate it.

A discussion seminar that focuses on Lecture 1 and 2 takes place on Thurs, March 3 at 10:00am.