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A History of Problem Solving: A Selection from The Alphabet Versus the Goddess

“Long before there were cities, books, and inkwells, there were clans, caves, and middens. Human societies were shaped by the exacting rules of evolution: losers became extinct, winners survived. The crucial module guaranteeing the tribes continuance was the family unit. All members prospered under this arrangement. A man was cared for by a solicitous woman and learned about the pleasures of playing with small children. A woman enjoyed the security she needed to devote her time to her offspring. Each gained a friend, lover, confidant, and helpmate. Children matured in a safe atmosphere guided by two caring role models. The tribe as a whole could count on the steady replenishment of both skilled hunters and pregnant mothers. This system works better than any alternative ever tried.

A husband and wife, over time, begin to resemble one another in physical appearance. The melding of their physiognomic features is also reflected, to varying degrees, in their souls. A woman’s presence in a man’s life tends to soften his hard edges, just as her proximity to him tends to stiffen her central core. A mate increases the possibility that each member of the couple will exhibit that difficult-to-define quality called common sense.

Men and women often arrive at conclusions and plans of action differently. Some situations are best addressed by focused, step-by-step “masculine” logic, while holistic, “feminine” intuition comprehending many components in a complex whorl is better in others. Couples benefit from having access to each other’s major hemispheric processes, which over time also strengthens their own personal minor mode. The blending of feminine knowing and masculine reason in each individual and each couple generates good sense. The wisest figure in the mythologies of ancient cultures was often a hermaphrodite- a male-female- such as Tiresias, a blind seer.

Humans belong to that class of animals called “social predators.” Their hunting strategy resembles that used by wolf packs and lion prides; all members of the social unit hunt in concert to kill prey. The protracted childhoods of human young made female participation on these forays unfeasible. The all-male hunting party came into existence in only our species and with it the ethos of the left brain.

The template for all subsequent male projects remained the original hunting party, the ultimate purpose of which was to kill. Therein lay the problem. When men began to spend extensive time in each other’s company, they amplified each other’s hunter-killer instincts. When the hunting party became an “army,” the prey became other humans. The result has been a historical record pungent with the acrid smell of fear, havoc, and death.

The greatest counterbalance to men’s death-dealing inpulse is to engage them in the lives of women and entangle their legs with children. The most dangerous result of these all-male cultures bereft of the input from women is the loss of common sense. The phrase “common sense” has several meanings. In one, it is the wisdom of all the senses, a holistic and simultaneous grasp of multiple converging determinants. In this meaning common sense is intuitive and is often the opposite of logic. In another meaning, it is the wisdom of more than one person. It is the result of the give-and-take of face-to-face conversation with another, which allows one to ‘hear oneself think.’ In this second meaning, common sense is wisdom generated ‘in common.’

Confronted by a knotty problem a person of turns to a trusted adviser, not so much to receive the solution as to engage in a problem solving dialogue. A man can resort to two entirely different advisers: his female significant other or another man. His interactions with these two most likely will be quite different.

There are certain conventions men generally obey when talking to each other. Dialogues occur in the light, with no physical contact, and both men are dressed, facing each other vertically. When a man consults his woman, it is often at night, in the dark, while both are horizontal in a position of repose, and there is frequently skin touching skin.

In both these colloquies, he talks in order to bounce his ideas off his listener and evaluate his or her response. The male adviser or woman confidante serves as his sounding board. Men, over many centuries and across a diverse range of cultures, would concur that in interpersonal matters, the best “sounding board” is often a soft pillow with a woman’s head on it. Further, this syzygy of skin, night, and goose feathers is conducive to sleep. A thoughtful person when confronted by a difficult dilemma for which others demand an immediate answer will frequently withhold his reply until after he has “slept on” it. By using this common saw, he tacitly acknowledges the vital importance of talking over the problem with his mate before falling asleep and then letting the right hemisphere dream its wisdom into his response. Come morning, horizontal thinking has worked its magic and the individual has arrived at an answer that makes common sense smile.

Men need the counsel of women to help them sort out what is important from what is folly. This need is particularly acute if the man is the head of a vast enterprise. In such situations the other men to whom he might turn for advice-those under him-will often have their own personal agendas, which may influence the opinions they give their alpha male. The wife of the alpha male is often a truer resource-sharing his life, her fate is intimately entwined with his. And the alternative kind of wisdom she brings to his problem make her counsel so uniquely valuable to him.

Few men who have enjoyed a good relationship with a woman would disagree with the proposition that a woman’s assistance in male problem-solving is indispensable. Eliminating her from the process greatly increases the possibility that a man might make a wrong-headed decision about matters of import. History books are filled with such examples.”

~Leonard Shlain, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess

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