political-natural records of Jesus in Syriac chronicle of Michael the Great

Syriac Patriach Michael the Great's world chronicle

In twelfth-century Syria, Patriarch Michael the Great wrote a massive world chronicle in Syriac.  That chronicle began with the creation of Adam and continued chronologically to Michael’s own time.  Michael didn’t create from events a story, a history.  Michael, as a Christian, believed in all-encompassing Christian history.  Michael the Great’s chronicle presented events in time for fellow learned clerics to study and ponder Christian history.[1]

Michael organized the pages of his chronicle to relate visually events.  Typically a chronicle page contains three vertical columns of text above a canon table synchronizing different calculations of years.  The sixteenth-century Syrian scribe who copied from Michael’s autograph stated:

{Michael} sorted out ecclesiastical events and, where possible, he gathered them in the superior column, just as we have written, and the succession of the kingdoms in the middle column, and the accidental things and miracles in the inferior column. He had great trouble with the separation, for the accounts were written helter-skelter [2]

The autograph apparently had columns arranged symmetrically about the book opening.[3] Superior columns meant the outer columns, and the inferior columns, the innermost columns. The Complutensian Polyglot Bible, completed in Madrid in 1517, used a three-column form for the Hebrew Bible.  The Complutensian Polyglot Bible placed the Hebrew text in the superior position.  It collated the Hebrew text with the Vulgate and the Septuagint.  Michael’s three columns collate sacred events, high-political events, and extra-institutional events (signs and wonders).  In Michael’s Christian understanding, these three columns presented different translations of God’s over-all plan in history.

Michael recorded serially four contemporary political-natural accounts of Jesus.  The first account is via Tertullian, a Christian scholar who lived from about 160 to 225:

Tertullian says that Pilate informed Tiberius about the teachings of the Lord Jesus.  In turn, Tiberius informed the Senate.  He {Tiberius} did not accept the accusation about him {Jesus}, but determined to kill the slanderers. [4]

The point of this account seems to be Jesus’s status in the eyes of the Roman Emperor Tiberius.  That’s a matter of political chronology.  The second record is attributed to Phlegon of Tralles, a non-Christian writer who lived in the second century:

Phlegon, the heathen philosopher, says that the sun darkened, the earth trembled, and the dead resurrected and entered Jerusalem and heaped woe upon the Jews.  He says in Book Thirteen of his history concerning the Olympiads that, “In the fourth year of the 204th Olympiad, darkness occurred six hours on Friday.  The stars appeared and Nicaea and Bithynia trembled from quakes, and many regions were destroyed.” [5]

Michael didn’t include this account to prove that Jesus existed or that Jesus was God incarnate. He seems to have used this account to document natural phenomena that occurred during the time of Jesus’s death.  The third record apparently is attributed to Ursinus of Bourges:

In his Book Five, Ursinus says: “A terrible distress came upon us. We heard of horrible calamities in the Hebrews’ cities.  We have now known something about the letters sent by Pilate from Palestine to the heathen King Tiberius.  In these letters Pilate says, “Miracles happen upon the death of a man who was crucified by the Jews.  When Caesar heard of this, he relieved Pilate of his position because he succumbed to the Jews and connived with them.”

The Romans, not the Jews, crucified Jesus.  Ursinus of Bourges is a French saint who probably actually lived in the third or fourth century.  Michael apparently included Ursinus’s text because it was relevant political-natural record from a Christian authority credible in twelfth-century Syria.  The final account is from the first-century Jewish-Roman scholar Josephus:

In his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus says, “There was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works — a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.  He drew over to him both many of the Jews and the gentiles.  It is believed that he was the Christ, and not as the leaders of the peoples say.  When Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, condemned him to the cross, those who loved him from the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine  prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.”

This passage from Josephus, known as the Testimonium Flavianum, has been a subject of intense scholarly controversy since the sixteenth century.[6]  The controversy concerns the extent of Christian interpolations in the text.  Surviving manuscripts of Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews date from the eleventh century and later.  In the place of “It is believed he was the Christ,” these manuscripts have “He was the Christ.”  A Jew surely would not have declared that Jesus was the Christ.  Michael’s source for Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews apparently pre-dated surviving manuscripts and is more textually credible.[7]  The credibility of the text attributed to Josephus wasn’t an issue for Michael.  Michael independently believed everything that Josephus stated about Jesus.  Michael cited Josephus not in Christian polemic, but as a record of political chronology.

Michael’s political-natural records of Jesus support the over-all structure of his chronicle.  Those records document that Jesus won the favor of his political ruler and extraordinary events marked Jesus’s death.  Michael the Great’s chronicle insists that sacred events, high-political events, and extra-institutional events are all the coherent history of the divine plan being realized through time.

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[1] The Hebrew Bible begins with the creation of the world.  Michael’s choice of beginning with Adam indicates that his chronicle concerns events in relation to humans.  Michael explicitly addressed readers of his Chronicle as brethren and scholars.  Within the text he recommended to readers further theological reading.  He used Greek technical terms without translation.  The implications:

we may safely assume Michael’s readers to be, like himself, well-trained clerics. It is therefore a work meant for “insiders”.

Weltecke (1997) p. 21.

[2] Michael the Great’s Chronicle, MS 377 (II, 357), from Syriac trans. Weltecke (1997) p. 27.  The scribe was Bishop Moses of Mardin.  On Moses of Mardin, see id. p. 7.  This text apparently is missing from Moosa (2014).  Id. does not preserve the three-column structure of the manuscript.  Many manuscripts exist in Armenian of abridgments of Michael the Great’s Chronicle.  See Bedrosian (2013).

[3] Weltecke (2000) pp. 185-6.  The scribe apparently mixed up the position of the columns on some pages.

[4] Michael the Great’s Chronicle, Bk. V, Ch. 10, from Syriac trans. Moosa (2014) p. 106.  The subsequent three quotes are from id.  A Letter of Pilate to Tiberius is thought to have been written in Renaissance Latin, perhaps in the 16th century.  Michael’s Chronicle indicates that the tradition of such a letter is much older.  The Gospels suggest that Pilate knew little about Jesus’s teachings.  The Roman Emperor Tiberius, who died 37 GC, surely did not threaten to kill those who disparaged Jesus.

[5] The passage from Phlegon of Tralles exists in Eusibius’s Chronicle, which Michael used as a source.

[6] Whealey (2003).   Prior to the sixteenth century, Christians in Europe probably viewed Josephus’s text much as Michael the Great did.

[7]  That some Christian interpolation exists in the Josephus passage was an easy claim for early textual scholars to make.  The extent of Christian interpolation is a much more difficult question.  Jerome’s De viris illustribus contains a Latin translation of the passage from Josephus and uses the phrase “credebatur esse Christus”  (he was believed to be the Christ).  The earliest manuscripts of that work date to the sixth or seventh century.  Syriac scholars typically didn’t read Latin works.  Whealey (2008) pp. 580-1.  Michael the Great’s version apparently represents text from before the sixth or seventh century.

[image] Composed photo by Anneli Salo, 2008.  Thanks to Anneli Salo and Wikipedia.


Bedrosian, Robert. 2013. The Chronicle of Michael the Great, Patriarch of the Syrians. Online at rbedrosian.com

Moosa, Matti, trans. 2014. The Syriac Chronicle of Michael Rabo (the Great): a universal history from the creation. Teaneck, N.J.: Beth Antioch Press.

Weltecke, Dorothea. 1997.  “The World Chronicle by Patriarch Michael the Great. (1126––1199): Some reflections.” Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies 11 (2): 6–29.

Weltecke, Dorothea. 2000.  “Originality and Function of Formal Structures in the Chronicle of Michael the Great.”  Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 3(2): 173-202.

Whealey, Alice. 2003. Josephus on Jesus: the Testimonium Flavianum controversy from late antiquity to modern times. New York: Peter Lang.

Whealey, Alice. 2008. “The Testimonium Flavianum in Syriac and Arabic.” New Testament Studies. 54 (4): 573-590.

frame tales: comparison of Decameron and 1001 Nights

Boccaccio’s Decameron is a frame tale with death set outside the frame.  In the Decameron, seven women and three men (the brigata) leave plague-stricken Florence for country estates.  There they enjoy telling each other stories.  The transition from story to story is a matter of civilized, turn-taking within the brigata.  In 1001 Nights, Shahrazad tells the King stories to forestall being executed.   That’s similar to the Sindibad frame tale in which a king’s advisers tell stories to forestall the king from executing his son on a false rape charge.  Other ancient frame tales such as the Panchatantra and the Sukasaptati are not generated against the threat of death.  Story-telling creates imaginary lives.  The threat of death highlights the creativity of story-telling.  In contrast to the 1001 Nights’ frame, the Decameron’s frame doesn’t make the creativity of story-telling directly ward off death.  Story-telling in the Decameron shares pleasure in the face of death.

basmala in pear-shaped calligraphy

Both the 1001 Nights and the Decameron have highly conventional frames.  The 1001 Nights repeats day after day:

But morning overtook Shahrazad, and she lapsed into silence.  Then Dinarzad said, “Sister, what a strange and entertaining story!” Shahrazad replied, “What is this compared with what I shall tell you tomorrow night if the king spares me and lets me live!”

The following night Shahrazad said: [1]

The continuing story indicates that the King has spared Shahrazad.  The Decameron repeats not frame text, but motifs.  Days begin with a description of the natural scenery, eating a meal together, singing and dancing.  From one story to the next within a day, the brigata reacts briefly to the story.  Then the King or Queen for the day instructs another to tell a story.  The day ends with appointing a new ruler, adopting a new theme, supper, more singing and dancing, and an elegiac love song explicitly set out in verse.  The conventions of the frames give the stories considerable independence.  In the 1001 Nights, the stories merely have to be good enough for the King to want them to be continued.  In the Decameron, stories subtly hint of interactions and characterizations among the brigata.  Those subtleties are submerged in the direct action of individual stories.

The Decameron’s stories are more regularly structured within the frame than are the stories of the 1001 Nights.  Days necessarily interrupt stories in the 1001 Nights, and the stories are many fewer than the days.  Stories get nested within stories and are continued with a statement of a narrative chain:

I heard, O happy King, that the Christian broker told the king of China that the young man said: [2]

The Decameron, in contrast, consists of ten days of story-telling, with exactly ten stories told on each day.   While characters in the stories manipulate and deceive each other with stories, characters don’t narrate stories.  The narrator is always implicitly a member of the brigata.  Unlike in the 1001 Nights, the frame participants in the Decameron are directly responsible for the surface meaning of the stories and their inner or allegorical meanings.

The Decameron’s ending gives its stories more independent social significance than the stories of the 1001 Nights.  The 1001 Nights, or more literally translated from the Arabic, a thousand nights and one night, is plausibly interpreted to mean an innumerably large number of nights.  The fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript of the 1001 Nights has no narrative ending.  The Egyptian recession published in the early nineteenth century ends with the King pardoning Shahrazad.  In either case, the stories have the effect of keeping Shahrazad alive.  The Decameron, in contrast, ends with no significance for the brigata.  For no good reason, the members of the brigata merely go home.[3]  Their lives don’t seem to be permanently affected by the stories they told.   Each story in the Decameron is prefaced with a plot summary positioned outside of the frame tale.  The significance of the Decameron‘s stories can be only for its readers.

Structural differences between the frame tales of the Decameron and the 1001 Nights plausibly relate to differences between oral tales and written literature.  The 1001 Nights seems to have arisen as a continually generated oral tale.  Its frame structure supports continual modification, elaboration, and extension.  The Decameron’s frame, in contrast, presents a regular, complete, encompassing order.  It presents the stories’ surfaces for literary interpretation and encourages allegorical interpretation of members of the brigata.  Boccaccio used the established oral tradition of frame tales in a new literary way.

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[1] From the 14th-century Syrian manuscript of 1001 Nights, 97th Night, trans. Haddawy (2010) p. 197.  Many other nights have the same text.

[2] 114th Night, id. p. 216.  Such chains are similar to isnad that support the authority of particular sayings in the Muslim world.

[3] At the conclusion of the Decameron’s tenth day, the King said:

to keep things from becoming tedious because of an established custom too long observed, and to prevent people from being able to raise frivolous objections to our having stayed here all this time, I think it proper, since all of us have had a day’s share of the regal honour I still possess, that with your approval we should go back to the place from which we came.

That statement wasn’t mean to be reasonably convincing.  Ten days of story-telling hardly makes “an established custom too long observed.”  There’s no indication of persons objecting to the brigata’s presence at the country estates and no reason why the brigata should care if persons did object.   That each has been ruler for a day is irrelevant and ironic in the context of the ruler seeking everyone’s approval for his proposal.  The ruler goes on to declare:

Furthermore, if you examine the matter carefully, there is also the fact that our company has already become known to many people around here, with the results that our numbers could increase to such an extent that it would take away all our pleasure.

This concern runs opposite the concern that persons would object to the brigata‘s continuing presence.  That an onrush of persons would occur and prevent the brigata members from enjoying each other’s company cannot be taken seriously.  Like Boccaccio’s claim to have written the Decameron for women, the motivation for going home requires a literary rather than literal interpretation.  Quotes above trans. Rebhorn (2013) pp. 851-2.

[image] Basmala in pear-shaped calligraphy by Shaykh Aziz al-Rufai.  Thanks to Nevit Dilmen and Wikipedia.  The basmala is an Arabic text that can be translated as “In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.”  The basmala begins every sura of the Qur’an except Sura 9.  On the basmala in relation to the 1001 Nights, Saleem (2012) pp. 37-42.


Haddawy, Husain, trans. and Muhsin Mahdi, ed. 2010. The Arabian nights. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Rebhorn, Wayne A., trans. 2013. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York : W.W. Norton & Company.

Saleem, Sobia. 2012. “Never trust the teller,” he said. “Trust the tale”: Narrative technique from the “Arabian Nights” to postmodern adaptations by Rabih Alameddine and Pier Pasolini. Thesis (M.A.)–University of California, Santa Cruz, 2012.


anisogamy and sex inequality: the communicative connection

Anisogamy — sex dichotomy in gamete size — does not imply that the sperm must assume responsibility for moving to the egg.  Evolution of sexual reproduction has consistently generated a size dichotomy in gametes.  The larger-size gamete (“egg”) is the female gamete.  The smaller-sized gamete (“sperm”) is the male gamete.[1]  Because sperm are typically much smaller than eggs, sperm are biologically less costly to produce and move.  Sperm typically are more numerous and more mobile than eggs.  However, reproductive competition generally is most significant at the level of the organism.  For organisms of different sexes (organisms differentiated by egg production and sperm production), relative organism value and relative mobility does not necessarily follow from the relative production costs and relative mobility of eggs and sperm.  Anisogamy is not destiny.

Communication has high value for sexually reproducing organisms.  Sexually reproducing organisms must solve the problem of getting male and female gametes physically together.[2]  Organisms must also solve other problems, such as securing food and avoiding predators.  In addition, the time and place of the union of the male and female gametes greatly affect the probably of generating reproductively successful offspring.  Behavior that brings male and female gametes together at a relatively good time and place, while imposing relatively weak constraints on solutions to other problems that organisms must solve, provides an evolutionary advantage.  Communication is a powerful tool for bringing male and female gametes together propitiously.  Sexual reproduction drives the development of communication capabilities.

sex differences in family portrait

Anisogamy provides little insight into sex differences in communication.  One scholar described the situation thus:

Sexual selection theory also teaches that because eggs are larger and more expensive to produce, females must conserve this resource by playing hard to get.  Conversely, because sperm are small and easy to manufacture, males can spread them around with little loss on investment.  But in fact, sperm are not cheap.  The relevant comparison is not between individual sperm and egg, but between ejaculate and egg.  An ejaculate often has a million sperm, making the mating investment of both male and female about the same. [3]

More broadly influential is a different view expressed in a recent scholarly review of sex in evolution:

At the biological heart of sex differences lies anisogamy – the vastly unequal size (and consequent energetic cost) of gametes contributed by male and female in sexual reproduction.  As Williams (1996, p. 118) points out, anisogamy marks the start of male exploitation of females.  “When egg-producers reproduce, they must bear the entire nutritional burden of nurturing the offspring.  By contrast, the sperm-makers reproduce for free.  A sperm is not a contribution to the next generation; it is a claim on contributions put into the egg by another individual.  Males of most species make no investments in the next generation, but merely compete with another for the opportunity to exploit investments made by females.”  When combined with internal fertilization, the stage is set for an even greater inequality in parental investment [4]

In the next paragraph of the quoted text, Williams, a leading evolutionary theorist, declared that ethnic and religious traditions, which are built upon human communication capabilities, reverse the ultimate sex inequality:

The biology of reproduction forms a basis for ethnic and religious traditions that facilitate the oppression of women by men and of children by both, with everything arranged so that the men end up the biggest losers. [5]

That’s an important insight.  Anisogamy and other figures of female disadvantage get magnified in social discourse to obscure the reality of over-all male disadvantage.  That explains lack of concern about the gender protrusion in mortality.  It explains why men have no reproductive rights and are incarcerated for having consensual sex and being poor.  It explains why enormous sex discrimination against men in child custody and child support attracts little concern.  Sex differences in communication, not anisogamy, are the biological root of sex inequality.

Anisogamy does not necessarily imply the social devaluation of men.  A leading biological anthropologist has declared:

our species possesses the capacity to carry sexual inequality to its greatest known extremes, but we also possess the potential to realize an unusual social equality between the sexes should we choose to exercise that potential. [6]

Another scientist concerned about sex inequality has pointed out:

the most distinctive genetic trait of homo sapiens – the source of their greatest evolutionary advantage – is their ability to intentionally and radically change their environments. [7]

Overcoming sex inequality requires changing the environment of social communication.  Men need to start speaking up about the reality of their lives as demonized men.

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[1] The primary advantage of combining DNA from separate organisms via sexual reproduction is an issue of lively research and debate.  By creating genetic diversity across offspring, sex might allow better exploitation of different local resources.  It might limit the effects of harmful genetic mutations.  Alternatively, genetic diversity might produce faster adaptation to changing environments or to rapidly evolving parasites and diseases.  Among multi-cellular organisms, sexual reproduction is much more common than asexual reproduction.

[2] Bringing male and female gametes together doesn’t necessarily require bringing male and female organisms together.  For example, marine broadcast spawners use water current to carry sperm to eggs.

[3] Roughgarden (2005) p. 3.

[4] Campbell (2006) p. 70, quoting from the original British edition of Williams (1997).  The original British edition was published in 1996 and entitled Plan and purpose in nature.

[5] Williams (1997) p. 84.

[6] Hrdy (1981) p. 14.

[7] Alison Gopnik, comments, in Re: The Science of Gender and Science — Pinker vs. Spelke — A DebateEdge: The Reality Club, 2005.

[image] McGinnis famly in Laird, Colorado, 1899.  Thanks to the Denver Public Library.


Campbell, Anne. 2006. “Feminism and Evolutionary Psychology.” Pp., 63-100 in J.H. Barkow, ed. Missing the revolution: Darwinism for social scientists. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 1981. The woman that never evolved. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Roughgarden, Joan.  2005.  “The Myth of Sexual Selection.” California Wild. Summer edition.

Williams, George C. 1997. The pony fish’s glow: and other clues to plan and purpose in nature. New York, NY: BasicBooks.

men are biologically inferior to women in communication

Men’s biological inferiority to women in communication is well-documented and relatively uncontroversial.  A neuropsychiatrist who’s an expert on male and female brains explained:

Males’ and females’ brains are different by nature.  Think about this.  What if the communication center is bigger in one brain than in the other?  What if the emotional memory center is bigger in one than in the other?  What if one brain develops a greater ability to read cues in people than does the other?  In this case, you would have a person whose reality dictated that communication, connection, emotional sensitivity, and responsiveness were the primary values. This person would prize these qualities above all others and be baffled by a person with a brain that didn’t grasp the importance of these qualities.  In essence, you would have someone with a female brain. [1]

A leading psychologist also found significant gender differences in brains:

The female brain is predominately hard-wired for empathy.  The male brain is predominately hard-wired for understanding and building systems. [2]

This biological sex difference is not merely defined by nature, genes, or sex chromosomes, as a crude biological determinist would believe.  The environment plays a crucial role in gender development:

Until eight weeks old, every fetal brain looks female – female is nature’s default gender setting.  If you were to watch a female and a male brain developing via time-lapse photography, you would see their circuit diagrams being laid down according to the blueprint drafted by both genes and sex hormones.  A huge testosterone surge beginning in the eighth week will turn this unisex {female} brain male by killing off some cells in the communication centers and growing more cells in the sex and aggression centers.  If the testosterone surge doesn’t happen, the female brain continues to grow unperturbed.  The fetal girl’s brain cells spout more connections in the communication centers and areas that process emotion. [3]

The criminalization of males is based on biological processes that begin before males are born.

men biologically inferior to women

Although the female brain has developmental priority, genetic sex differences are significant.  Males have only a Y chromosome, rather than a double dose of the larger X chromosome that women have.  This difference has communicative implications.  A male geneticist on the faculty at a leading British university explained:

The chromosome unique to men {Y} is a microscopic metaphor of those who bear it, for – in spite of determined attempts to retain its identity – it is the most decayed, redundant, and parasitic of the lot. [4]

This scholar also revealed that the Y chromosome is associated with lack of useful information, baldness, and bad temperament:

Masculine decadence is such that on the Y, a mere one part in thousands contains useful information. … To half the human race it is the prince of chromosomes, for it commands the testes. That in turn directs those who bear it to their bald, bibulous, and bad-tempered destiny. [5]

Another prominent scientist has supported that finding:

I have a genetic abnormality generally considered to be associated with high rates of certain socially abhorrent behaviors: I am male. Thanks to an array of genes that produce some hormone-synthesizing enzymes, my testes churn out a corrosive chemical and dump the stuff into my bloodstream, and this probably has behavioral consequences. We males account for less than 50 percent of the population, yet we generate a huge proportion of the violence. [6]

However, the problem is not simply male genetics or male hormones:

“Testosterone equals aggression” is inadequate for those who would offer a simple biological solution to the violent male. And “testosterone equals aggression” is certainly inadequate for those who would offer the simple excuse that boys will be boys. Violence is more complex than a single hormone, and it is supremely rare that any of our behaviors can be reduced to genetic destiny. [7]

Life undoubtedly is complex.  By age 45, this scholar had become a high-ranking male in the academic dominance hierarchy.  His ethical guidance for men is remarkably simple and sex-typed:

What’s clear to me now at 45 is, screw the alpha male stuff. Go for an alternative strategy. Go for the social affiliation, build relationships with females, don’t waste your time trying to figure out how to be the most adept socially cagy male-male competitor. Amazingly enough that’s not what pays off in that system. Go for the affiliative stuff and bypass the male crap. I could not have said that when I was 25. [8]

Men’s recognition of their biological nature can help to motivate them to try to act like women.

But biological knowledge should not be sought without first considering the effects of that knowledge on women.  The leading neuropsychiatrist’s book on the female brain promised on its book jacket:

Women will come away from this book knowing that they have a lean, mean communicating machine.  Men will develop a serious case of brain envy. [9]

Nonetheless, a popular weekly U.S. news magazine reported cause for concern about this book’s effect on women.  It reported that a Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at a large mid-western university stated:

she’s disgusted by scientists, writers and publishers who exploit trivial differences between the genders.  Books like this “are bad for my blood pressure,” she says. [10]

The news magazine also quoted another psychiatrist who’s a neuroimaging expert at a large mid-western medical school.  According to the news magazine, she declared:

Nurture plays such a huge role in human behavior that focusing on biology is next to meaningless.  “Whatever measurable differences exist in the brain,” {she says}, “are used to oppress and suppress women.” [11]

A leading biological anthropologist recognized this sort of risk over two decades ago.  She noted:

Biology, it is sometimes thought, has worked against women.  Assumptions about the biological nature of men and women have frequently been used to justify submissive and inferior female roles and a double standard in sexual morality. [12]

Insinuations of inferiority and double standards hurt women, including hurting their self-esteem and discouraging them from seeking high-powered scholarly careers.  Nonetheless, this influential scholar argued that refusing to talk about biology is a mistake:

by refusing to talk about biology, we effectively hide the fact that there are important ways in which human females are in a worse position than are females in other species. [13]

Despite concern about the risks to women, talk about biology has flourished.  Moreover, women have been leaders in talking about biology.

An important book entitled The First Sex documents areas of women’s biological superiority to men.  This book, published in 1999, was authored by a well-regarded woman anthropology professor.  A review of the book in BusinessWeek gushed:

In the past two months, four books have appeared extolling the evolutionary and biological underpinnings that make women equal – nay, superior – to men. … the best of the bunch is The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They are Changing the World. [14]

Over 300 news articles have cited The First Sex since its publication in 1999.

The First Sex made shocking claims.  It declared:

discrimination is only one of the reasons why women are not achieving parity with men at the highest-ranking jobs of the traditional corporate world.  I suspect there is a biological component to this complex situation: as testosterone and other male hormones contribute to men’s drive to reach the top of the business ladder, estrogen most likely contributes to women’s drive to take time out to rear their children – undermining their ability to achieve high-status jobs.

But this author is not a biological determinist.  She also identifies different tradeoffs that males and females make in the social circumstances that shape career success:

Unquestionably, many, many women are ambitious. …

But as a rule, women are not as willing as men to stay late in the office, travel constantly, skip school events, entertain clients in the evening, or relocate, sacrificing their family lives and their personal interests for their careers.

These social circumstances reveal the relative value of women’s and men’s lives, at least from a women’s perspective:

So I am not convinced that women will ever reach parity with men in the highest echelons of the traditional corporate world.  Not because women lack the education or the intelligence.  Not because women fear failure.  Not because men will monopolize these trophy jobs.  But because fewer women are willing to work long hours, take job risks, transfer to other cities, and jeopardize their family and personal lives in other ways to gain the summit.  They feel they have something more important to do. [15]

The expression of such views may hurt women’s self-esteem, discourage them from elite scholarly careers, and contribute to women’s oppression and the perpetuation of patriarchy.  Even if not causing physical harm to women, such as high-blood pressure or nausea, expression of such views might be considered to be verbal violence.  A professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine has declared:

In my view, when faculty tell their students that they are innately inferior based on race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, they are crossing a line that should not be crossed – the line that divides free speech from verbal violence – and it should not be tolerated at Harvard or anywhere else. [16]

The First Sex doesn’t state that women are innately inferior.  It declares that women’s under-representation at the top of corporations is because women “feel they have something more important to do.”  The author probably isn’t guilty of verbal violence against women and thus shouldn’t be arrested.

The First Sex describes numerous, communication-related biological advantages of women.  Important points include:

  • At talking, women have the edge.
  • Women are, on average, more articulate at saying what they say.
  • Specific genes may also enable some women {about 50%} to speak more effectively than men
  • Women’s voices are more variable, more musical, and more expressive than men’s – traits shared with other female primates.  Female apes and monkeys produce a larger array of whimpers, coos, barks and other middle-range “social” calls, while male primates have a more restricted repertoire of growls and roars, aggressive strident sounds. [17]

Both nature and environment are important in determining the differences between females and males.  The author explains that the structure of men’s brains favors (small) “step thinking,” while the structure of women’s brains favors “web thinking”:

women, on average, take a broader perspective than men do – on any issue.  Women think contextually, holistically.  They also display more mental flexibility, apply more intuitive and imaginative judgments, and have a greater tendency to plan long term – other aspects of the contextual perspective. [18]

The web, meaning the Internet-based global mesh of information and communication technologies, is becoming hugely important.  This environmental change naturally favors women, since they have an innate advantage in “web thinking.”

Scholars have also documented that women have additional innate communication advantages.   Under-appreciated communication industry analysis suggests that sense of presence, working across all sensory modalities, is an important source of value in communication.  Compared to men, women have biologically superior sense:

  • Women are, on average, more sensitive to touch.
  • Women, on average, also have superior hearing.
  • Women, on average, can taste sweet, sour, salty, and bitter flavors in lower concentrations {than can men}.
  • Women are generally superior at noticing and remembering physical contexts.
  • In the dark woman have superior eyesight.  Women adjust their vision faster to the dark and see more accurately in the dead of night.
  • Women also have keener peripheral vision. …Women literally see the “bigger picture.”
  • women usually distinguish colors, particularly the various shades of red and green, more accurately {than men}. … This feminine talent for perceiving shades of red and green is genetically determined.  The genes for red/green color vision and all combinations of these colors lie on the X chromosome.
  • Women can also remember shades, tones, and color values more accurately than men. [19]

It should come as no surprise to learn that women “live in a richer olfactory world” than men.  Despite some evidence to the contrary, scientific studies also indicate that women “recognize odors more accurately than men.”[20]

Women also have documented superiority in interpersonal sensitivity.  Having a sense for the response of an imaginary reader, listener, viewer, or dialogue partner is important for success in many forms of communication.  Women’s innate advantages encompass that sense:

  • Touch, hearing, smell, taste, night vision, peripheral vision, color vision: women’s sensory acuities give them a remarkable advantage in any occupation where understanding and getting along with people is required.  Yet women have even more arrows in their social quiver.  They have an outstanding ability to read facial expressions.
  • Women are also more skilled at reading all of the nonfacial bodily clues that we unthinkingly transmit.
  • Dozens of psychological tests show that women are, on average, more skilled at what psychologists call interpersonal sensitivity. [21]

Overall, the innate sensory advantages of women foster “an uncanny ability to read your mind, then tell you what you want to hear.”[22]

The innate advantages of women fundamentally affect public communication.  Women’s innate communicative superiority was predicted to make women dominant in communication and education industries:

  • As we move further into the Information Age, it seems likely that women will have an innate advantage in any career that depends on words – particularly in the communications industries and in all of our educational fields.
  • I contend that women will come to dominate many sectors of the communications and education fields. [23]

Echoing such claims, a popular weekly news magazine published an article headlined “La difference: How women won the sex war;  Larry Summers may well have been right, but men are done for anyway.”  The news article explained:

Technology and globalization are undermining the usefulness of male skills.  … Modern professional life is dominated by emotional intelligence, empathy and communication. … It’s a girlie man’s world [24]

The dominance of women in communication and education industries is already obvious.  That’s especially true in public discussion of sex differences and sexism.

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[1] Brizendine (2006) p. 13.  Louann Brizendine is a medical doctor and practicing clinician at the University of California, San Francisco. She founded and directs the Women’s and Teen Girls’ Mood and Hormone Clinic. Brizendine is a graduate of the Yale University School of Medicine and has been on the faculty at Harvard Medical School.

[2] Baron-Cohen (2003) p. 1.  Simon Baron-Cohen is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge.  Some of the responses to his work have been funny.  His cousin is Sacha Baron Cohen.

[3] Brizendine (2006) p. 14.  Brizendine and Baron-Cohen’s work is criticized in Fine (2010).  Fine describes her book thus:

The main message of the Delusions of Gender is that our comforting beliefs about gender – that everything’s fair now, that sex inequality can be blamed on ‘hardwired’ differences between the sexes, and that our failure to rear unisex children just points the same way – just don’t bear up to scrutiny.

Men imprisoned for doing nothing more than having consensual sex, or men facing acute sex discrimination in child custody awards, surely don’t believe that everything’s fair now.  As for rearing unisex children, parents can run their own tests.  But of course, like communism, rearing unisex children is never actually tried and get never gets a true test.

[4] Jones (2003) p. 4.  Steve Jones is a professor of genetics at University College, London.  In 1996, he won the Michael Faraday Prize for “wide ranging contributions to the public understanding of science.”

[5] Id. pp. 4-5.

[6] Sapolsky (1997).  Robert Sapolsky is the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University and a MacArthur Fellow.

[7] Id.

[8] Sapolsky (2003). Urging men to act like women is also a policy direction that has emerged from a scholarly study recognizing that men’s violence-related death rate is about four times that of women’s. However, a sophisticated interpretation of this alpha-male’s advice to young betas is that he’s seeking to forestall them from challenging him for his position at the top of the academic dominance hierarchy.

[9] Brizendine (2006).

[10] Tyre (2006), quoting Janet Hyde, Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

[11] Tyre (2006), quoting Dr. Nancy C. Andreasen of the University of Iowa Medical School.

[12] Hrdy (1981) p. 1.

[13] Id. p. 8.

[14] Arnst, Catherine, “Will the 21′st Century Be a Woman’s World?BusinessWeek, June 14, 1999.

[15] Fisher (1999) pp. 47-9 (previous three quotes).

[16] Barres (2006) p. 135.  Ben Barres is a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University School of Medicine.  On Jan. 14, 2005, Harvard University President Larry Summer gave remarks at an NBER conference on diversifying the science & engineering workforce.  The Boston Globe reported:

The president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, sparked an uproar at an academic conference Friday when he said that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers. Summers also questioned how much of a role discrimination plays in the dearth of female professors in science and engineering at elite universities.

Nancy Hopkins, a biologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, walked out on Summers’ talk, saying later that if she hadn’t left, “I would’ve either blacked out or thrown up.” Five other participants reached by the Globe, including Denice D. Denton, chancellor designate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, also said they were deeply offended, while four other attendees said they were not.

The above quote is the first two paragraphs in Marcella Bombardieri, “Summers’ remarks on women draw fire,” Boston Globe, Jan. 17, 2005.

[17] Fisher (1999) pp. 58, 62, 64 (bullet points are textually separate quotes).  In a comment in Genome Biology, Petsko (2005), p. 105.2, noted the importance of voice tone:

It’s a pity there isn’t a recording of his speech {Larry Summer’s remarks made to a National Bureau of Economics Research conference}, because tone of voice can make a big difference in matters like this.

Fisher’s findings on the strongly gendered importance of voice tone is consistent with that claim.

[18] Fisher (1999) p. 4. Id., p. 94, reports:

{Employers} will also hire women if they need employees who can use the Net effectively. This feminine edge was demonstrated recently by managers at the {now defunct} telecommunications company MCI. Using its own Web site, MCI asked tens of thousands of male and female computer users to answer five “general interest” questions about the Net. Women, they discovered, use the Web faster and more efficiently than men do.

[19] Id. pp. 85, 86, 89, 94, 90-1 (bullet points are textually separate quotes).

[20] Id. p. 88.

[21] Id. pp. 91, 93, 96 (bullet points are textually separate quotes). Brizendine (2006) Ch. 6 makes similar claims.

[22] Fisher (1999) p. 102.

[23] Id. pp. 65, 57 (bullet points are textually separate quotes). Id. p. 288 declares:

We are inching toward a truly collaborative society, a global culture in which the merits of both sexes are understood, valued, and employed.

Fisher’s The First Sex was not the first book with that title.  Elizabeth Gould Davis in 1971 wrote a book entitled The First Sex.  Like Fisher, Davis presented an optimistic vision of the future:

The ages of masculism are now drawing to a close. Their dying days are lit up by a final flare of universal violence and despair such as the world has seldom before seen. …

In the new science of the twenty-first century, not physical force but spiritual force will lead the way. Mental and spiritual gifts will be more in demand than gifts of a physical nature. Extrasensory perception will take precedence over sensory perception. And in this sphere women will again predominate.

Davis (1971) p. 339.

[24] “La difference: How women won the sex war; Larry Summers may well have been right, but men are done for anyway,” The Economist, Aug. 3, 2006.

[image] Sugar cane workers resting at the noon hour, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, in Dec. 1941.  From Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs.  Thanks to the Library of Congress.


Baron-Cohen, Simon. 2004. The essential difference: male and female brains and the truth about autism. New York, Basic Books.

Barres, Ben A. (2006). “Does gender matter?” Nature 442: 133-136.

Brizendine, Louann. 2006. The female brain. New York: Morgan Road Books.

Davis, Elizabeth Gould. 1971. The first sex. New York: Putnam.

Fine, Cordelia. 2010. Delusions of gender: how our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference. New York: W. W. Norton.

Fisher, Helen. 1999. The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They are Changing the World. New York: Random House.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 1981. The woman that never evolved. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Jones, Steve. 2003. Y: the descent of men. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Sapolsky, Robert. 1997. “Testosterone Rules.” Discover 18(3).

Sapolsky, Robert. 2003. “A Bozo of a Baboon: A Talk with Robert Sapolsky.” The Third Culture. Edge Foundation.

Tyre, Peg and Julie Scelfo. 2006. “Why Girls Will Be Girls.” Newsweek, July 31.


Boccaccio’s Ovid wrote the Decameron for men

Boccaccio's Decameron written for men

In the Decameron’s preface, Boccaccio declares that he wrote this book for charming ladies suffering from lovesickness.  The Decameron’s critics, who typically have not closely considered its preface, have tended to take the Decameron’s declared audience literally.  That’s a fundamental mistake.  In writing the Decameron, Boccaccio adopted the literary position of Ovid and wrote Ovidian instruction in love for men.[1]

The Decameron’s preface begins with the author ironically describing himself as lovesick unto death.  A specific description isn’t necessarily, because the author has a classic case of courtly love:

I have been enflamed beyond measure by a most exalted, noble love, which, were I to describe it, might seem greater than what is suitable for one in my low condition.  Although I was praised and held in high regard for that love by those discerning individuals to whose attention I had come, it was nevertheless extremely painful to endure [2]

Unlike the ideal courtly lover, the author doesn’t pursue onerous works of love servitude or organize a wide-ranging contest of men-against-men violence.  The author simply gets over it: “my love abated in the course of time of its own accord.”  Getting over it, not death, is a low-realistic resolution of lovesickness.  It sets an Ovidian tone of irony.

The author then ironically claims to offer a remedy to women in love.  The women in love are women of courtly imagination: charming women who “keep the flames of love hidden within their delicate breasts.”  They are subjugated by men and confined with the home.  That’s an elite fable.  Plain-speaking ordinary folk know better.  Listen to the maid Licisca.  She interrupts the introduction to Day 6 of the Decameron and declares:

this guy is such an ass that he really believes young women are all so foolish that they’re willing to waste their time waiting around for their fathers and brothers to marry them off, which six times out of seven takes them three or four years longer than it should.  Brother, they’d be in a fine state if they postponed it that long!  I swear to Christ — and I should really know what I’m talking about when I swear like that — I don’t have a single neighbor who was a virgin when she got married, and as for the married ones, I sure know about all the different kinds of tricks they play on their husbands and how often they play them.  Yet this muttonhead wants to teach me about women as if I were born yesterday!

Underscoring its literary irony, the Decameron’s preface adapts a passage from Ovid’s Heroides to describe activities that distract men from melancholy and burdensome thoughts.[3]  The courtly ideal of love did not admit such distractions.  Such distractions did not help Ovid to overcome the despair of his exile.  Love and despair debilitate men more than they do women.  Boccaccio taunts men’s unwillingness to acknowledge their weakness by ironically directing the Decameron’s preface to women.

Other parts of the Decameron’s meta-frame also indicate that the Decameron was intended for men.  The Decameron ends with a direct address to ladies and its dual title:

As for you, charming ladies, may His grace and peace be with you always, and may you remember me if perhaps any of you have benefited in any way from having read these stories.

Here ends the Tenth and final Day of the book called Decameron, also know as Prince Galeotto.

In Dante’s Commedia, Francesca declared “a Galeotto was the book and he that wrote it” that caused her and her lover Paolo to fall into the circle of Hell for adulterers.[4]  The author’s plea to be remembered in the context of a blessing jars ironically with the alternate title of his book, Prince Galeotto.

Galeotto, the final word of the Decameron, points to its actual audience of men.  Galeotto is the Italian word for the character Gallehault in the early thirteenth-century French prose romance Lancelot.  In that work, the noble knight Gallehault was lovingly devoted to the noble knight Lancelot.  Boccaccio, writing a highly learned response to Dante, subverted Francesca blaming Gallehault and the author of the book for her fall.  The Decameron, Prince Gallehault, serves its readers, actually gendered as Lancelot.  Boccaccio’s Decameron, like his Corbaccio, presents to men the comic realism of women and their relationships with men.  The Decameron, like the Corbaccio, instructs men in the Ovidian art of love for flesh-and-blood women.

Other parts of the Decameron‘s meta-frame place men in the social position of its readers.  In the introduction to Day 4 and in the Author’s Conclusion, the author addresses five objections to the Decameron from men and women, respectively.  The women’s objections concern the style of the book: too licentious, some stories should have been omitted, some stories were too long, the book is too frivolous and insubstantial, and it shouldn’t have told the truth about the friars.  The women’s objections arise from within the text of the Decameron.  They are not anchored in social reality.  The men’s five objections, in contrast, come from the world outside the text: the author is too devoted to women and thereby neglects men, the author is too old to be orienting his life to women, the author could better enhance his reputation by writing in a high style on lofty matters, the author’s writing won’t earn money, and the stories the author wrote didn’t actually happen.  These objections are anchored in the real social position of men.  Historical evidence indicates that the readers of the Decameron were primarily men in Boccaccio’s social class.[5]

Boccaccio as Ovid, instructing men in love, is evident in the concluding play of the Decameron’s preface.  The preface refers to readers in the second person (“you”) and ladies in the third person (“by the ladies I mentioned”; “the ladies of whom I have been speaking”).  The preface concludes:

I believe that as they read them, their suffering would come to an end.  Should this occur — and may God grant that it should — let them thank Love who, in freeing me from from his bonds, has granted me the ability to attend to their pleasures.

In the context of the preface, attending to the ladies’ pleasures most literally means relieving their lovesickness.  The Decameron’s stories are filled with sexual intrigue.  That’s not sensible medicine for curing lovesickness.  Thanking Love for being cured of lovesickness adds to the irony.

Pressing from behind Boccaccio’s ladies are men.  They are Boccaccio’s you, and Boccaccio’s you becomes they.  Men read women with the useful instruction of the Decameron, and then women’s suffering in lovesickness comes to an end.[6]  Boccaccio more than Ovid makes clear his concern for more than superficial linguistic brilliance.  Boccaccio’s magnanimously uses his freedom from courtly love to attend to women and men’s pleasures of flesh-and-blood love.  Boccaccio seeks to be a blessing.  May God grant through Boccaccio that men and women will be thankful for that love.

*  *  *  *  *

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[1] Hollander (1997) p. 89 describes the Proemio (preface) as “probably the most neglected part of the Decameron.”  Id. p. 90 further declares that the Decameron is “one of the worst read masterpieces that the world possesses.”  Hollander insightfully relates the Proemio to both Dante and Ovid:

If Boccaccio is Ovid, he is also Dante.  … The sense of an author-protagonist who has recently escaped from a life-threatening situation pervades both proemial passages {of Dante’s Commedia and Boccaccio’s Decameron}.  … In their former difficulty each is aided by the counsel of a ‘friend’: in Dante, this was Virgil, sent by Beatrice; in Boccaccio, as I have proposed, the adviser is Ovid.

Id. p. 101.  Id., pp. 93-100, associates the second part of the Proemio with Ovid’s Remedia amoris.  Hollander seems to me to under-estimate both Boccaccio’s Ovidian irony and his Dantean moral seriousness.

[2] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Preface, from Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 290.  All subsequent quotes from the Decameron are from Rebhorn’s translation.

[3] Presented and discussed in Hollander (1997) p. 99.  The relevant passage in Ovid is Heroides 19.5-16.

[4] Dante, Inferno 5.137.

[5] Kirkham (1993) pp. 118-9.  In 1373, Boccaccio wrote to Maghinardo Cavalcanti with consternation that “honorable ladies of your household” were reading the Decameron.  Id., p. 121, observes:

Courtly and stilnovistic conventions, which make it de rigueur to privilege woman, easily account for the sex of Boccaccio’s readers.

The privileging of women goes far beyond stilnovistic conventions.  Boccaccio formally writing for women is a far more sophisticated literary move than a mere literary convention.

[6] In the cant of contemporary criticism, the above is a unified reading.  Migiel (2003) and Sherberg (2011) put forward readings of the Decameron unified by contempt for men and ignorance of the realities of men’s lives throughout history.  Both cap their works with misandristic, injury-obscuring invocations of men’s violence against women.  The best response to such oppressive, soul-deadening criticism is to skip the class.

[image] Jean, Duke of Berry, receiving the book from the translator, Laurent de Premierfait; Royal 18 D VII f. 2, from Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by Laurent de Premierfait, De casibus virorum illustrium (Des cas des ruynes des nobles hommes et fammes).  France, c. 1440.  Thanks to the British Library.


Hollander, Robert. 1997. Boccaccio’s Dante and the shaping force of satire. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Kirkham, Victoria. 1993. The sign of reason in Boccaccio’s fiction. Firenze: L.S. Olschki.

Migiel, Marilyn. 2003. A Rhetoric of the Decameron. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Rebhorn, Wayne A., trans. 2013. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York : W.W. Norton & Company.

Sherberg, Michael. 2011. The governance of friendship: law and gender in the Decameron. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.


gods and physicians in ancient Greek inscriptions and epigrams

In Greco-Roman antiquity, infirm or sick persons seeking cures went to temples dedicated to the Asclepius, the god of medicine.  These temples, called Asclepeia, displayed inscriptions describing cures.  The inscriptions typically described the name of the person, the nature of the infirmity or illness, and the way in which the person was cured.  Cures often involved sleeping in the Asclepeion and having a dream that provided instructions for a cure (incubation).  Here’s a roughly 2400-year-old inscription from the Asclepeion at Epidaurus:

Ambrosia from Athens, blind in one eye.  She came as a suppliant to the god.  Walking about the sanctuary, she ridiculed some of the cures as being unlikely and impossible, the lame and the blind becoming well from only seeing a dream.  Sleeping here, she saw a vision.  It seemed to her the god came to her and said he would make her well, but she would have to pay a fee by dedicating a silver pig in the sanctuary as a memorial of her ignorance.  When he had said these things, he cut her sick eye and poured a medicine over it.  When day came she left well. [1]

This inscription describes a cure of blindness and skepticism.  It also indicates the god, or temple operatives, looking out for their material interests.  Diogenes the Cynic sought to cure entreaties to Aesclepius:

One day he saw a woman prostrating herself before the gods in an indecent position, and wishing to free her of superstition, according to Zolus of Perga, he came forward and said, “Are you not afraid, my good woman, that a god may be standing behind you?  — for all things are full of his presence — and you may be put to shame?”  He consecrated to Asclepius a fierce ruffian who, whenever people prostrated themselves, would run up to them and beat them up. [2]

The account suggests Diogenes viewing the woman from behind and assimilating the god to himself.  Diogenes made praying for blessing into an invocation for a beating.  In the ancient Greco-Roman world of pervasive gods, humans both sought miracles from gods and ridiculed petitions to them.

sculpture of the god Jupiter de Smyrne, a Roman version of Zeus

Physician similarly generated hope, doubt, question, and ridicule.  Physicians presented themselves as inheritors of the healing powers of Asclepius.  An epigram  from the Milan Posidippus celebrates the healing skill of the physician Medeios, son of Lampon:

Like this bronze which, drawing shallow breath up over
its bones, scarcely gathers life into its eyes,
such were the ones he used to save from disease, that man who discovered
how to treat the dreadful bite of the Libyan asp,
Medeios, son of Lampon, from Olynthos, to whom his father
gave all the panacea of Asclepius’ sons.
To you, O Pythian Apollo, in token of his craft
he dedicated this shriveled frame, the remnant of a man. [3]

Living, speaking sculptures are standard figures in ancient Greek epigrams.  In this epigram, the bronze sculpture figures a shriveled man near to death, but not beyond the reach of Medeios’s healing art.  A Greek epigram from the first century presents a sharply contrasting view of a physician:

The physician Marcus laid his hand yesterday on the stone Zeus, and though he is of stone and Zeus, he is to be buried today. [4]

The living sculpture here is Zeus, the King of the gods and the father of Apollo.  The touch of the physician Marcus kills the stone sculpture of Zeus and causes it to be buried.  That could be interpreted as the reverse of dedicating a sculpture.  An insightful reading of the Medeios epigram suggests that it’s implicitly critical of Medeios’s immoderate claim to skill.[5] A physician treating Zeus, in the form of a stone sculpture not rigidly distinct from the god, is highly immoderate.  The Marcus epigram is consistent with criticism of physicians’ presumption.

Both gods and physicians healed.  Both gods and physicians acted within circumstances of swirling beliefs and doubts.

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[1] From the shrine of Asclepius at Epidaurus, inscription A4, from Greek trans. LiDonnici (1995) p. 89.  On healing shrines in fifth and fourth-century BGC Greece, Nutton (2013) Ch. 7.

[2] Diogenes Laërtius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Bk. VI.37-38, from Greek trans. adapted from Robert Drew Hicks (1925) and Bing (2009) p. 239.

[3] Posidippus, Epigrams (Pap Mil. Vogl. VIII 309), AB 95, from Greek trans. Peter Bing.  Bing (2009), pp. 217-233, discusses the collection of seven healing epigrams (iamatika) in the Milan Posidippus Papyrus.  He observes that they draw upon the conventions of healing inscriptions (iamata) in Asclepeia.

[4] GA 11.113.  The epigram is attributed to Nicarchus.  Many satirical Greek epigrams directed against physicians exist in the Greek Anthology.  See, e.g. GA 11.112-126, 11.257.  Here’s GA 11.125:

The physician Crateas and the graveyard manager Damon made a joint conspiracy.  Damon sent the wrappings he stole from the grave-clothes to his dear Crateas to use as bandages and Crateas in return sent him all his patients to bury.

The first-century Latin writer Martial also composed epigrams against physicians.  Pliny described physicians as greedy, unscrupulous, and deadly to their patients.  Those were common themes in ancient satire of physicians.  A physician killing a statue of a god is rather more unusual.

[5] Wickkiser (2013).  Zeus punished Asclepius for bringing a dead man back to life.  Restoring the dead was a sign of the perfect physician.   The Libyan asp’s bite was regarded to be incurably fatal.  Claiming to cure its bite was extraordinary.


Bing, Peter. 2009. The scroll and the marble: studies in reading and reception in Hellenistic poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

GA: Paton, W.R. 1920. The Greek Anthology with an English Translation. London: William Heinemann (vol. I, bks. 1-6; vol. II, bks. 7-8; vol. III, bk. 9; vol IV, bks. 10-12; vol. V, bks. 13-16). (epigrams indicated GA {bk}.{epigram # within bk})

LiDonnici, Lynn R. 1995. The Epidaurian miracle inscriptions. Atlanta, Ga: Scholars Press.

Nutton, Vivian. 2013. Ancient medicine. 2′nd ed. London: Routledge.

Wickkiser, Bronwen L. 2013. “The Iamatika of the Milan Posidippus.” The Classical Quarterly. 63 (02): 623-632.


male dominance is socially constructed belief

Highly individualistic, materialistic, and competitive societies favor belief in male dominance.   In an influential book written in 1981, a highly regarded anthropologist in a highly individualistic, materialistic, and competitive society noted:

It has long been customary among members of our species to assume that males are dominant over females.[1]

An intellectual response to a mere custom is to ask “Why assume that?”  Here’s the anthropologist’s answer:

in generation after generation, species after species, or in the human case, culture after culture, primate males have been able to dominate females and to translate superior fighting ability into political preeminence over the seemingly {sic} weaker and less competitive sex. … on those occasions when a male and a female covet the same fig or the same safe crotch of a tree to spend the night, it will typically be the male who gets it.[2]

Concern about the distribution of the richest material goods and the choicest social positions defines a concept of dominance likely to be of acute concern to elites fighting for these goods in an individualistic, materialistic society.  More fundamental measures of welfare are length of lifespan and the share of organisms who produce at least some offspring.  On these measures primate females on average surely rank higher than primate males.  Belief in male dominance shows social vision focused on the best goods and the most privileged individuals.

rabbit doll ponders male dominance

Belief in male dominance isn’t part of reasonable thinking about social reality.  Try thinking about dominance outside of well-entrenched customs of public deliberation and the dominant discourse.  Was your mother’s life less abundant and less full of joy than your father’s life?  Was your grandmother worse off than your grandfather?  Many persons with sensitivity to the fullness of real life would not easily reach a definitive answer to those questions.  Moreover, those questions point to some important objective facts: you may not know your father very well.  Fathers on average are more likely to be displaced from their children’s lives than are mothers.  Fathers also on average die earlier than mothers.  More generally, men tend to predominate among the richest and most powerful persons, and among the poorest and most marginalized persons.  At the level of fundamental reproductive biology, men have paternity legally assigned to them in completely mendacious ways, and men are socially denied practically attainable knowledge of who their offspring actually are.  Belief in male dominance obscures this social reality.

Belief in male dominance is commonly coupled with denial of matriarchy.  The anthropologist who declared the assumption of male dominance also declared, “outside of myth, I know of no evidence that any matriarchal societies ever existed.”[3]  Interpreted literally, matriarchy means rule by mothers.  The rulers of most societies throughout human history have been men, not mothers.  Considerable evidence exists, however, that primate societies are organized around females.  Much evidence also exists of female control over males through sexual power and superior social communication skills.  Matriarchy in an operational sense is best understood as gynocentrism, i.e. society organized around women and predominately concerned about serving women.  Belief in male dominance is socially constructed to obscure the reality of gynocentrism.

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[1] Hrdy (1981) p. 11.

[2] Id. pp. 16, 18.  Hrdy’s biography points to important aspects of social dominance apart from physical strength.  Hrdy not only lives in the U.S., but is a member of a family that has been highly successful within the U.S.  Hrdy grew up in Texas, where her father was a wealthy member of an oil-rich family.  Hrdy’s mother attended Wellesley College, an elite women’s college.  Hrdy also attended Wellesley College.  For a featured biography of Hrdy, see Dowling, Gage, and Betterton (2003).

[3] Hrdy (1999) p. 252.


Dowling, Claudia Glenn, Jenny Gage, and Tom Betterton. 2003. “The Hardy Sarah Blaffer Hrdy.” Discover 24(3).

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 1981. The woman that never evolved. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 1999. Mother nature: a history of mothers, infants, and natural selection. New York, Pantheon Books.


scholars declare demonic male species and gynocentrism

gibbons ponder scholarship declaring our demonic male species

A prize-winning anthropologist at a leading U.S. university has explored how to tame what he describes as “our demonic male species.”  In an important book, he and his co-author considered how to bring about a revolution in human social organization such as that imagined in Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s 1915 novel, Herland.   The setting for that novel is an isolated society in which, long ago, all the males had been fortuitously killed.  The women subsequently engender only females through asexual reproduction.  The anthropology professor and his co-author recognized the implausibility of perfectly implementing this move toward an ideal society:

Like Gauguin and Melville and Mead, Charlotte Perkins Gilman eliminated male violence from her portrait of an ideal society simply by eliminating males; and we cannot perfectly paste this story’s lesson onto an ordinary two-sex society.[1]

They recognized, however, that prisons could make an important contribution to this program:

Persuading the more violent men to abandon hopes of fatherhood would doubtless keep prison builders happy and, in the end, probably engender revolution.   But even if the most aggressive, potentially violent men could be persuaded to step aside for the sake of future generations, what about the women? [2]

Men are currently incarcerated for having consensual sex and not being able to make court-ordered monthly payments for the next eighteen years.  Should efforts to incarcerate men be expanded further?  Of course, the more important question is: what about the women?

Long-before tiresome recent books such as Are Men Necessary? and The End of Men and the Rise Women, a leading biological anthropologist wrote a scholarly book with a chapter entitled, “The Pros and Cons of Males.”   She briefly discussed Herland, which she described as a “marvelous 1915 utopian novel.”  She also described Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto as providing a “refuge from and defense against” the belief that women are “devoid of political instincts.”[3]  The SCUM Manifesto has obvious importance to elite anthropology.  The SCUM Manifesto declares:

the male is an incomplete female, a walking abortion, aborted at the gene stage. To be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited; maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples. [4]

The SCUM Manifesto describes “rational men”:

Rational men want to be squashed, stepped on, crushed and crunched, treated as the curs, the filth that they are, have their repulsiveness confirmed.

This work of elite anthropological scholarship lamented, “This doctrine of female inferiority has disfigured several ostensibly impartial realms, particularly the study of human evolution.”[5]  That’s the same scholarly logic that drives sexist studies of sexism.

Scholars have now recognized that females play a central role in determining primate social organization.  Some scholars once believed that the Industrial Revolution led to patriarchy.  Under patriarchy theory, men deprived women of economic resources and confined them within the (single-family, suburban, dull, and dehumanizing) home.  Other scholars, however, have traced the origins of patriarchy back to the beginning of agriculture.  That’s when men’s plows first started penetrating the earth, and men began placing seeds into the fertile ground.  In the evocative description of a highly regarded anthropologist, it was “The Plow: Death Knell for Women.”[6]  However, scholarly competition and innovation has pushed patriarchy further back into evolutionary history:

Human patriarchy has its beginnings in the forest ape social world, a system based on males’ social dominance and coercion of females.  We can speculate that it was elaborated subsequently, perhaps in the woodland ape era, perhaps much later, by the development of sexual attachments with the same essential dynamic as gorilla bonds.…  Men, following the evolutionary logic that benefits those who make the laws, would create legal systems that so often defined adultery as a crime for women, not for men – a social world that makes men freer than women.[7]

Key to this intellectual development was directing attention to female-bonded primate groups:

If FB {female-bonded} groups have evolved as modeled, they support the view that male strategies are ultimately a result of female distribution, i.e. males compete for access to given clumps of females in a system of “female defense polygyny” {references omitted}.  Consequently the number of females per group and the number of males per female are considered to depend ultimately on the strategies of females [8]

Gynocentrism rapidly achieved dominance in scholarly deliberation in anthropology and primatology.  As a scholar of primate social organization noted in a scholarly article published in 2002:

For much of the last twenty years, females have occupied center stage in theoretical and empirical analyses of primate social organization. [9]

Women have dominated social life (gynocentrism) for as long as humanity has existed.  For humans and other primates, males’ strategies depend on female behavior.  Sociality evolved in primates because it enhanced females’ access to resources.[10]  Consistent with general patterns of primate life, elite men and women today compete to establish social rules that most effectively transfer resources from men to women.

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[1] Wrangham & Peterson (1996) p. 238.  Richard Wrangham is the Ruth B. Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology and Wing Chair at Harvard University.  He won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1987.   Wrangham and Peterson describe Timothy McVeigh as an “all-American male” and Arnold Schwarzenegger as offering a “comic book caricature of the demonic male physique and persona.”  They lament, “As men, we have probably inadvertently neglected issues that women writers would have raised.”  Id. pp. 247, 240, 242.  Compared to eliminating all men, gynocentrism has the advantage of exploiting men’s material productivity and using men to fight other men.

[2] Id. p. 239.

[3] Hrdy (1981) p. 11.  In 2001, Hrdy won the W.W. Howell Prize for outstanding contribution to biological anthropology.

[4] Solanas (1968) p. 1.  The subsequent quote is from id. p. 16.  Shortly after writing the SCUM Manifesto, Solanas shot and critically wounded one man, shot but missed another man, and attempted to shoot a third man.  For these acts, she served about three years in prison.  While the SCUM Manifesto has an honored place in elite scholarship, masterpieces of literature like Boccaccio’s Corbaccio are condemned to oblivion.

[5] Hrdy (1981) p. 11.  Discussion of claims of female inferiority function as an aspect of gynocentrism.

[6] Fisher (1999) p. 173.

[7] Wrangham & Peterson (1996) pp. 241-2.   Other ambitious scholars have successfully traced males’ exploitation of females back to anisogamy.  The small sperm contributes less weight to the embryo than does the large egg.  This alleged exploitation started about 1.2 billion years ago when the first sexually reproducing organisms evolved.  Knowledge, capability, and interest in denouncing such sexual exploitation developed about 50 years ago.  Patriarchy has long imposed grotesquely unjust paternity laws on men and treated men as disposable persons.

[8] Wrangham (1980) pp. 287-8.

[9] Silk (2002) p. 85, describing the influential model of Wrangham (1980).

[10] Id.

[image] pair of Gibbons.  Thanks to MatthiasKabel and Wikipedia.


Fisher, Helen E. 1999. The first sex: the natural talents of women and how they are changing the world. New York: Random House.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 1981. The woman that never evolved. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Silk, Joan B. 2002. “Females, Food, Family, and Friendship.” Evolutionary Anthropology 11: 85-87.

Solanas, Valerie. 1968. SCUM manifesto: Society for Cutting Up Men. New York: Olympia Press.

Wrangham, Richard W. 1980. “An ecological model of the evolution of female-bonded groups of primates.” Behaviour 75: 262-300.

Wrangham, Richard W. and Dale Peterson. 1996. Demonic males: apes and the origins of human violence. Boston, Houghton Mifflin.


New Modern Sexism Scale helps to evaluate sexism truly

An influential 1995 scholarly article debuted the Modern Sexism Scale.  That article began ominously in the first sentence of its abstract:

Prejudice and discrimination against women has become increasingly subtle and covert (N. V. Benokraitis & J. R. Feagin, 1986). [1]

Prejudice and discrimination against men, in contrast, is blatant and overt.  Discrimination against men is written explicitly in sexist Selective Service registration rulesInternational measures of gender gaps in lifespan naturalize and explicitly ignore men’s lifespan disadvantages.  Men have no reproductive rights.  Men are imprisoned for nothing more than having consensual sex and being unable to pay government-imposed sex payments (“child support”).  Men face enormous gender disparities and discrimination in child custody awards.

Sexism against men is coded into social-scientific studies of sexism that use only the Modern Sexism Scale.  The Modern Sexism Scale measures three factors of sexism:

  1. denial of continuing discrimination {against women}
  2. antagonism toward women’s demands
  3. resentment about special favors for women [2]

The Modern Sexism Scale is obviously sexist.  It’s completely gynocentric.[3]

To combat sexism, the gynocentric Modern Sexism Scale should be complemented with the New Modern Sexism Scale.  The New Modern Sexism Scale measures sexism along three additional factors:

  1. denial of discrimination against men
  2. antagonism toward men’s demands
  3. resentment about concern for men

The Modern Sexism Scale together with the New Modern Sexism Scale measure sexism without the sexism of the Modern Sexism Scale.  If that doesn’t make sense to you, you’ve identified yourself as maximally sexist and no further scientific measurement is needed.

bull horns: key to understanding sexism research

Sexism is further measured by presenting subjects with statements.  Subjects respond to the statements using with five choices of agreement ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree.  If the statement is essentially sexist, as determined by the credentialed authority administering the examination, then intensity of agreement is coded increasing from 1 to 5.  If the statement is essentially correct-thinking non-sexism, then intensity of disagreement is coded increasing from 1 to 5.  Statements of direct and reverse coding for sexism help to encourage thoughtful responses.  The integer codes for responses are added up to label just how sexist the respondent is.

In the Modern Sexism Scale, eight gynocentric statements measure sexism:

  1. Discrimination against women is no longer a problem in the United States. {more strongly agree is more sexist}
  2. Women often miss out on good jobs due to sexual discrimination. {more strongly disagree is more sexist}
  3. It is rare to see women treated in a sexist manner on television. {more strongly agree is more sexist}
  4. On average, people in our society treat husbands and wives equally. {more strongly agree is more sexist}
  5. Society has reached the point where women and men have equal opportunities for achievement. {more strongly agree is more sexist}
  6. It is easy to understand the anger of women’s groups in America. {more strongly disagree is more sexist}
  7. It is easy to understand why women’s groups are still concerned about societal limitations of women’s opportunities.  {more strongly disagree is more sexist}
  8. Over the past few years, the government and the news media have been showing more concern about the treatment of women than is warranted by women’s actual experiences. {more strongly agree is more sexist} [4]

The New Modern Sexism Scale uses eight androcentric statements to measure sexism:

  1. Discrimination against men has never been a problem in the United States, and if it were a problem women’s groups would be very concerned about that discrimination. {more strongly agree is more sexist}
  2. Men often miss out on time with their children due to gender roles directing men to earn money and sexual discrimination in child custody awards. {more strongly disagree is more sexist}
  3. It is rare to see men treated in a sexist manner on television. {more strongly agree is more sexist}
  4. On average, people in our society treat wives and husbands equally. {more strongly agree is more sexist}
  5. Society has reached the point where men and women have equal opportunities for personal fulfillment. {more strongly agree is more sexist}
  6. It is easy to understand the anger of men’s groups in America, particularly since their existence is rarely acknowledged, and when acknowledged, commonly misrepresented and ridiculed. {more strongly disagree is more sexist}
  7. It is easy to understand why men’s groups are concerned about societal limitations of men’s opportunities.  {more strongly disagree is more sexist}
  8. Over the past few years, the government and the news media have been showing more concern about the treatment of men than is warranted by men’s actual experiences. {more strongly agree is more sexist}

The subject’s scored responses for the eight statements in the Modern Sexism Scale and the eight statements in the New Modern Sexism Scale are separately summed to form dual sexist scores.  These scores are linearly normalized to the 1 to 10 scale widely used for personal evaluation.

Scientifically measured sexism is critical for objectively and authoritatively declaring persons to be sexist.  Extreme values on the Modern Sexism Scale (MSS) and the New Modern Sexism Scale (NMSS) have clear implications:

  • MSS=1 and NMSS=10:  Likely to become a tenured professor.  Incapable of learning.  Will remained mired in sexism against men for the rest of her or his life.
  • MSS=1 and NMSS=1: Shrewd survey respondent.  Recognizes and affirms prejudices implicit in social constructs.  Will successfully rise to the top of egalitarian social elite.
  • MSS=10 and NMSS=1: Outlaw renegade.  Must be suppressed and silenced for the good of the dominant discourse.
  • MSS=10 and NMSS=10: Equally sexist person.  Does not discriminate between women and men.  Urgently needs sexist education to become less sexist.

Intermediate values of MSS-NMSS represent mixed beliefs and attitudes.  When in doubt, declare the person to be sexist and in need of sexist education.  Calling for more research on sexism is also favored among sexism researchers. [5]

The study that set out the Modern Sexism Scale linked sexism and racism.  Racism in the U.S. arose from a history of chattel slavery and pervasive racial segregation.  There is no such history of sexism.  Across all the generation of human beings, men and women have lived together, intimately related, and worked together to raise children.  Being oblivious to that reality, like administering only the Modern Sexism Scale, indicates extreme sexism.

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[1] Swim, Aikin, Hall & Hunter (1995) p. 199 (abstract).  The Modern Sexism Scale was influential enough to be included in Baron et al. (2007).

[2] Swim, Aikin, Hall & Hunter (1995) p. 212.

[3] Id. described two studies “validating” the Modern Sexism Scale.  Respondents in the first study:

Respondents were 418 women and 265 men from an introductory psychology course who received extra credit for their participation. Nearly all respondents were European-American.

Id. p. 201. Respondents in the second study:

Four hundred seventy-seven women and 311 men completed the racism and sexism questionnaires for extra credit in their introductory psychology course. Nearly all respondents were European-American.

Id. p. 205.  Women receiving college degrees now outnumber men by about 40%.  In the Modern Sexism Study, female respondents outnumbered male respondents by about 60%.  The greater degree of gender inequality in the Modern Sexism Study reflects large gender inequality in the academic field of psychology.

[4] Id.

[5] Wikipedia lists sixteen different scales to measure to sexism, gender bias, and beliefs about gender.  Many more could be created to satisfy different prejudices of different researchers.  The World Values Survey provides a leading example of a sexist measurement of sexism.


Baron, Sherry, Meg A. Bond, Dianne Cazeca, Sivan Daniel, Alketa Kalaja, Pia Markkanen, Laura Punnett, and Lana Tsurikova. 2007. Expanding our understanding of the psychosocial work environment: a compendium of measures of discrimination, harassment and work-family issues.  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Swim, Janet K., Kathryn J. Aikin, Wayne S. Hall, and Barbara A. Hunter. 1995. “Sexism and racism: Old-fashioned and modern prejudices.”  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 68 (2): 199-214.


Corbaccio’s guide recognized humane social position for men

Men killing other men, with incitement and support from women, vastly predominates among deadly interpersonal violence.  Violence against women, rather than violence against men, has nonetheless become a major public concern.  Whether through sexist Selective Service registration or requiring men to be the last off sinking ships or ignoring serious injuries to men or many other ways, men’s lives have long been socially devalued.

upper body of knight in full combat armor

The fourteenth-century Italian humanistic writer Giovanni Boccaccio celebrated a more humane social position for men in his under-appreciated comic masterpiece of love, Il Corbaccio.  In that work, a ghostly guide counseled the narrator about his failed courtship of the guide’s former wife.  That lady delighted in men “full of prowess and vigor.”  The guide explained to the benighted narrator:

I believe you thought she liked, wanted, or desired the sight of brave and vigorous men jousting with iron-tipped lances, or in bloody battle amid a thousand mortal perils, or besieging cities and castles, or, with sword in hand, killing each other. [1]

That’s a life-depriving social position for men.  Women and men have long supported that sort of social position for men.  But the guide’s former wife was more humane.  The guide described her good reason and humanity:

She is neither so cruel nor so treacherous as you seem to believe, that she loves men so that they kill each other.  And what would she do with the blood which gushes forth red as a man dies?  Her thirst is for the more refinèd kind that living, healthy bodies can render without needing to have it back again.  The prowess which she likes, then, no one knows better than I.  It is not used in public squares, or in fields, or upon city walls, or with breast plates on, or with basinet upon the head, or with any slashing sword; it is used in the boudoir, in hidden places, beds, and similar locations suited to it, where without the coursing of horses, or the sound of brass trumpets, one goes to the joust at a slow place. [2]

Medieval men faced the now inconceivable danger of sexual exhaustion.  Nonetheless, men having sex with women is a much more humane social position for men than is men killing other men.

A central challenge for societies today is to create a humane social position for men, one that gives men human dignity and value equal to that of women.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Il Corbaccio, from Italian trans. Cassell (1993) p. 49.

[2] Id. pp. 49-50.  The lady almost surely would have rejected the celebration of a knight’s bloody wounds in the mid-thirteenth-century French courtly nouvelle, Des trois Chevaliers et del Chainse.  The lady’s valuation of men recovers the lost ideal of chivalry.

[image] Armor of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, c. 1590,  Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, no. 51.585.


Cassell, Anthony K. trans. 1993. Giovanni Boccaccio. The corbaccio, or, The labyrinth of love. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies.


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