We are at a crossroads as a species. After several thousand
years, patriarchy consolidated its domination of the world in the last 100
years. In the last few decades, the intrinsic unsustainability of patriarchal
economics and politics has been exposed. In the last decade, we started a
global conversation about the question of our very survival as a species.
We face a critical choice: Will we continue on the suicidal
path leading us to watch all that we love die within the foreseeable future? Or
will we reclaim and restore our fundamental relatedness with all things alive,
surrender our attempts to control life, and avert or mitigate the worst
possible catastrophes if we still can?
Even if we succeed in containing the acute threat of global
warming, without finding a way to preserve or restore the “biology of love”, we
will remain in the throes of patriarchy. Since what drives evolution is what children
learn and conserve, our future depends on supporting children to experience and
then conserve love.
Love thrives in the context of freedom and belonging. Love
shrinks in the context of obedience and shame. Love is intertwined with
gifting, and withers away in transactional contexts. Preserving love entails
putting needs at the center; a radical departure from existing paradigms of patriarchal
child-rearing. This is how patriarchy is directly related to our prospects for
Patriarchy and Global Warming
Patriarchy is interwoven both with the effects and
the causes of global warming. Global warming disproportionately affects the
lives of women and girls, especially low income and Global South women and
girls. Global warming is also a feminist issue because the mindset and systems
that created it are both directly and indirectly patriarchal. Directly, because
patriarchy originated from separation from and control over life. Indirectly,
because capitalism, one of patriarchy’s core offspring, is based on maximizing
profits through extractive capacity, with complete disregard for what are seen
At the same time, much of the thinking about how to slow
down or halt global warming remains focused on short-term coercive or
transactional methods. Ultimately, fully turning around the march to
destruction requires restoring connection to self, others, and life itself. Restoring
connection means, respectively, shifting from obedience to freedom, from shame
to belonging, and from scarcity and narrow self-interest to trust in natural
abundance and care for the whole.
Our Origins: Love, Needs, and the Mothering Principle
Four strands converge in the framework I am presenting here:
archeological/anthropological, biological, psychological, and
social-theoretical. Archeologically, this framework begins with the pioneering
work of archeologist Marija Gimbutas on the matriarchal societies of what she
calls Old Europe. These societies flourished for at least hundreds of years,
well into the agricultural revolution, until they were transformed into
patriarchal societies in three waves of progressively more violent invasions by
nomadic pastoralist Indo-Europeans. In parallel, either the same or other similar
groups migrated eastward all the way to the Indus region, where similarly matriarchal
societies existed. Other parts of the world remained partly or wholly matriarchal
until the massive worldwide project of European colonization disrupted just
about any semblance of egalitarian structures and imposed the order of
patriarchy – dominance and submission – on most of the rest of the world,
though small pockets of fully or partially matriarchal societies continue to
exist and struggle against the continued encroachment of patriarchy.
What do such societies look like? This is where the idea of
a “biology of love” put forth by Humberto Maturana meets the “maternal gift
economy” of social theorist Genevieve Vaughan, Darcia Narvaez’s research in
psychology, and my own explorations over years of learning, teaching, writing,
and working with people within the framework of putting needs at the center.
The Biology of Love
Maturana has been a pioneer in rethinking how evolution works. He posits the
framework of “genetic drift” that results rather than originates in natural
selection, through an ongoing recursive relationship of mutual constitution
between organism and environment within the context of epigenetic changes of
mutual adaptation. Based on this framework, he and psychologist Gerda Verden-Zöller
put love and cooperation at the center of human evolution. They see humans as being
a different lineage from chimpanzees, despite how close we are genetically,
because we have conserved the loving nature of mother-child relationship into
detailed description of early societies is strikingly similar to the research
into past and present matriarchal societies, although developed independently
of each other’s work. The following composite and incomplete portrait of such a
society description draws on both strands.
The mothering relationship is central, revered, and paradigmatic beyond
the progressively narrowing scope we currently associate with it in patriarchal
capitalist societies. Its quintessential form is an orientation towards the
needs of another, giving without expectation of receiving.
Cooperation. Matriarchal societies have no
stratification: not between men and women, not between classes, and not between
adults and children. Instead, through cooperation and ongoing gifting,
everyone’s needs are included in the mix of decisions about resource allocation
and social life.
Natural authority. In matriarchal societies, no
coercion is necessary. Authority emerges naturally, and is generally in the
hands of the clan mother, whose views are respected rather than obeyed.
Gift economy and need orientation. Matriarchal
societies function largely in the gift. Gifting arises from the pervasive
maternal orientation to everyone’s needs. Women generally manage basic goods
collectively for the benefit of all, including men, within a subsistence
economy. When accumulation happens at all, it is seasonal and collective.
Nonviolence. Matriarchal societies are fundamentally
peaceful and stable. Despite colonial pressure, for example, the Iroquois confederacy,
entirely based on nonviolent and cooperative principles, has been in continuous
operation for about a thousand years ago.
Self trust. Children are surrounded by love and
nurturance and witness pleasure, stable intimacy, and play, free of relational trauma.
They are the recipients of unilateral and unconditional giving from their
mothers and others, with much more continuity of experience into adult life. Both
women and men are naturally trusting of self and other, relaxed, and
Conflict. In matriarchal societies conflict is
neither avoided nor fought. Rather, it is metabolized within a restorative
paradigm primarily focused on the overall well-being of the community.
There is nothing more threatening for patriarchy than the
debunking of the myth that dominance and submission are built into our nature,
thus many are skeptical of the picture I just painted. Since I rely on a body
of work that is contested and at times actively silenced, I want to urge
readers to consult with the sources in the references before passing judgment.
The Shift to Patriarchy
“Selfish gene” or “homo economicus” theories of
self-interest and competition are challenged to explain away the persistent
presence of care, of connection, and of gifting. Similarly, accepting the
matriarchal, egalitarian, peaceful, and stable lens that explains the
archeological, biological, and mythological findings requires coming up with
plausible explanations for how matriarchal societies turned globally into societies
based on scarcity, separation, and powerlessness.
According to Heide Goettner-Abendroth, a founder of the
matriarchal studies framework, no grand theory explains this transition. Patriarchy
emerges because of local, specific reasons external to the spontaneous
unfolding of the culture. This happens only when the stress and trauma
interfere with the spontaneous unfolding of trusting relationships and love on
a scale large enough to overwhelm the capacity of a group or culture to
metabolize within its finite resources and resilience.
The emerging patriarchal societies are never stable because patriarchy goes against our biology, and require physical or economic force to sustain itself. Under patriarchy everyone suffers: men and women – though not alike;
adults and children – though not alike; people of lighter and darker skin – though not alike; people of wealth and impoverished people – though not alike. Separation distorts everyone’s sense of self and capacity for well-being while making some of us the object of hatred, persecution, violence, and diminishment. Patriarchy shapes all relationships, institutions, mindsets, and everything else about our way of living. It runs independently of any one person’s attitudes or behaviors. All forms of domination, starting when patriarchal societies were formed through conquering the Old European stable agricultural settlements, and including capitalism, racism, exploitation, oppression, war, and now
environmental degradation, have been the result of patriarchy and not its cause, and none of it is inherent to who we are.
If patriarchy is not specifically about men, why is it that
this shift invariably results in men ruling women and not the other way around?
A more detailed narrative of what happened in the European context might give
us some clues. This is the patriarchal turn that had the most calamitous
results for humanity; that left Europe as the only continent where no matriarchal
Without ever being able to know exactly what happened, available data suggests that
desertification and massive flooding around the Black Sea
(encoded in the Biblical story) led significant numbers of people to revert to
hunting for food to supplement the diminishing capacity of women to sustain the
group through growing food. Eventually, unable to find food, men left to reduce
the burden on the women and sustain the future of their society. With or
without women, weakened groups of men continued to migrate from the steppes, where
they could not feed themselves properly. Progressively more desperate, they
would finally reach the urban and garden societies of eastern Europe, only to
recognize that there was no place for them to settle peacefully because of
population density. They could either return to the steppes and desert that
could not sustain them, or cross a line, for the first time in that part of the
world, and use their hunting weapons against other humans in an act of war.
It is almost impossible, I believe, for our modern minds to
grasp the calamity of what the ensuing waves of invasions signified, because we
no longer have the lived sensibility of what it was like before. Gimbutas
discovered nearly 700 sites in which hundreds of years of peaceful existence,
including agriculture and cities, were destroyed quite rapidly in the face of
the invasions. Villages and cities were either destroyed, or became second
class citizens ruled by foreign people. This is when patriarchy fully formed:
when some men began to rule all others. From this moment on, European history
is rife with unceasing trauma.
The short answer, then, to why it was men who became the
carriers and symbols of the new social order is that it was men who killed,
conquered, and dominated. And it was women who had to be dominated because
unless they lost their power, they remained capable of organizing resistance to
the new rulers. This is how patriarchy deepened its commitment to separation
until it became a negation of life, of mothering and of children, and by
extension of gifting and connection. Continued accumulation then created a push
for more land, more resources, more labor power, and more markets. In that way,
then, it was, indeed, inevitable that patriarchy would become a worldwide
Even as resistance to the encroachment of patriarchy and the
diminishment of the biology of love has continued, patriarchy has expanded, and
with it trauma, instability, and progressive destruction of life. At the same
time, patriarchy has been immensely successful in hiding its inherent and
necessary violence by othering larger and larger groups of people and inventing
what theologian Walter Wink calls “the myth of redemptive violence.”
In order to sustain itself patriarchy, like any social
order, is passed inter-generationally through socialization. Tragically, this
is first done by women to both their daughters and their sons, before and
alongside men. It is also all too often the case that women engage directly in
cruel physical mutilations of their daughters’ bodies and in shunning behaviors
towards children, women, and men who don’t conform to patriarchal norms.
The usurpation of gifts into the exchange paradigm
Systemic internalization also explains Vaughan’s insight
that the gift economy continues without being visible, as host to the exchange
economy that becomes its parasite. Three invisible forms of gifting sustain the
workings and continued existence of patriarchy, most acutely in its capitalist
One is the gift of work done, mostly by women, outside the
market economy: care for children, the sick, the home, families, and
communities. A second is the unfree gifting of labor that is an essential
building block of profit; what Karl Marx called “surplus value”. The third is
the gift of nature and its silent incapacity to resist the mining and other
forms of extraction.
Thus the gift continues, without being valued, without being
recognized, allowing the mythology of market freedom and success to flourish
while what sustains it remains invisible and often actively devalued.
Life under Patriarchy: when Extremes Become the Norm
Under patriarchy, three mechanisms shifted from being
activated in extreme conditions only to being activated all the time or often.
In order of their appearance they are fight/flight/freeze, coercion, and shame.
Each of them has unfolded within the trauma-laden history of patriarchy.
Fight/flight/freeze. I tend to think of
fight/flight/freeze as an ingenious response to an assessment of threat to
survival, when control is transferred to (rather than “hijacked” by) parts
of the brain that make rapid decisions by turning off the normal mechanisms of
the biology of love, most especially care for the whole, and focusing, instead,
just on survival. Under conditions of the biology of love, where trust in life
and each other is the general flavor of living, this mechanism is rarely
activated. With all the catastrophe that happened, loss of trust in life became
endemic, intergenerational trauma isn’t metabolized, and incoming signals are
more likely to be interpreted as danger.
Traumatized people are less likely to create optimal
conditions for their children to grow up in the biology of love. We haven’t had
– ever – the conditions to release trauma over time. Patriarchy has only
continued, expanded, taken over more areas of life, spawned colonialism,
capitalism, and racism, and brought us to near extinction. This, and ongoing
bombardment of our senses, have left us in a semi-permanent activation of our
fight/flight/freeze system, and a high propensity for full activation.
Coercion. Matriarchal societies rely on relationship,
care for the whole, gifting, and natural authority to maintain cohesion and
well-being. It is a rare event when actual coercion has to be exercised, and
almost impossible in the absence of rulers and armies. Patriarchy, on the other
hand, because it is always imposed against our biology, necessitates
ongoing coercion, especially of children. Obedience is one of patriarchy’s ways
of reproducing itself by making it possible to override the innate human aversion
to inflicting harm on others, a point I elaborate in my article “The Freedom to
Shame. Shame evolved as part of humans becoming
progressively more dependent on a loving group for our wellbeing. This
vulnerability makes shame a perfect mechanism for protecting the group from the
threat of an extreme individual action. Whether consciously or not, patriarchy
mobilized this powerful social emotion for a different purpose: shame now
protects the imposed order of the powerful; not the group as a whole. Under
patriarchy shame becomes a primary mechanism of socialization just when a child
most needs the loving context that allows for unhindered individual development.
Domination and Submission: Separating Freedom from Safety
Alice Miller, a pioneer in challenging child-reading
practice, describes a human baby as “a bundle of needs.” In matriarchal
societies, mothers and others orient directly to these needs, in a full and
undifferentiated way: as many of the needs, as much as possible.
Following the discovery and articulation of my sister Arnina
Kashtan, I now see patriarchy as interfering with individual development by
separating and opposing two triangles of needs: security, including belonging
and being seen, and freedom, including truth and presence. As children, we have
to earn security by being obedient and “good.” The overwhelming majority of us
accept this extremely difficult deal. We conclude that freedom is impossible,
and keep longing for it while conforming for belonging. We are unlikely to
challenge people in positions of authority or the system of patriarchy as a
whole, internalizing and passing on patriarchy’s messages to our own children.
A very small minority of us choose the never-articulated
option of freedom knowing that this means living without safety, belonging, or
being seen. The isolation this entails becomes a cautionary tale for others. It
also makes us less likely to band with others to stand up to patriarchy.
Either way, we come out of childhood fractured. Darcia
Narvaez, a psychologist and theorist, has concluded that what goes for normal
child-rearing goes directly against what is optimal for healthy development: that
our upbringing primes us to compete and fight with others for the few positions
of dominance, where those are even available, or to submit to others’
dominance. How? By making love absent or conditional, by shaming us, and by
creating impossible choices that divide us internally and prepare us for external
divisions between individuals and groups of people.
The global war-ning: will our children conserve the biology of love?
We have reached a state where the biology of love is at
risk. To continue as loving human being will require us to want to
preserve the biology of love. All the values and ways of being of matriarchal
societies are now endangered.
In this tragic context, mothering itself is
transformed from attending to present needs to shaping and controlling the
child’s development for the future. The social structures separating home from
work since by the industrial revolution foist impossible choices on women:
either remove themselves from adult productive life and raise their children
within an artificially intensified dyadic relationship (if they have that
option in terms of their class standing), or join the labor market and entrust the
child’s upbringing to a transactional context.
Cooperation, previously based on voluntary
participation, is now mostly coerced. The majority of the people of the world are
now involuntarily doing meaningless activities, for hours every day, designed
to attend to some of the needs of the few. Mistrust and resentment predominate,
feeding the next cycles of trauma and contributing to the perpetuation of
patriarchy. Some groups’ needs are systematically prioritized in social
contexts rife with power differences and mistrust.
Natural authority is largely replaced with imposed,
structurally reinforced authority that is obeyed rather than listened to. Rising
to more authority mostly correlates with less rather than more care for
The gift economy has gone underground, and need
orientation is progressively less common as everything gets commodified. We
are seduced into believing that those who have access to resources well beyond
anyone’s capacity to spend and those who don’t get their basic needs met both deserve
their conditions. The early imprint of gifting as free receiving clashes with
the reality of exchange and we become divided against ourselves and numb to
unimaginable and ongoing suffering in the world.
We all know, somewhere, that something is very wrong in a
world where war is a constant affair, nonviolence is elusive, and
structural and emotional violence affect almost everyone.
The self-trust that people raised within the biology
of love experience, vital for caring action in times of challenge, is all but
gone. People the world over struggle with extreme self-doubt and caution,
relying on anything but their own inner guidance and clarity for making choices.
The state of globalized capitalist patriarchy in which we
live makes it near impossible for a child to be surrounded by sufficient love. Perhaps
for the first time ever, the possibility of conserving aggression instead of
love is looming large. We can, still, reclaim, restore, and conserve our human
lovingness, though not for long. Providing sufficient love would now need to be
a conscious choice, not a spontaneous unfolding, given the trauma we all carry.
We are reaching the end of the road.
Integrating Our Past with Our Present
In 2002, when my beloved deceased sister Inbal first
articulated her radical approach to parenting based on the principles and
practices of Nonviolent Communication, she named this form of parenting an act
of social change. Now, her call rings closer: at least some of us, somewhere,
need to do the near-impossible to make a future truly possible. We do this,
individually, by changing our story; by re-integrating the split between
freedom and belonging; and by creating a different life for this generation of
children. I leave the question of how we can possibly change the larger
structures of society to other articles and venues.
Changing the Story
In some ways, this is the easiest part of the necessary
transformation. There is no need to start from scratch. Information is
available, and we can find it, with focused intention, outside mainstream sources.
This article, in itself, is the result of years and years of study. Here, in
concise form, is the summary version of what I have learned, including what’s
already named in this article.
Most of our existence, at least 97% of it if not 99%, we
lived in matriarchal societies in which we were thriving and enjoying life,
fully connected to our bodies, to each other, and to life as a whole. The
patriarchal shifts we have endured happened because of our vulnerability to
certain extreme outside stressors, within which we revert to the biology of
aggression. They are not intrinsic developments within cultures. Perhaps
our biology of love had not evolved sufficiently to handle such conditions,
since the capacity for dominance and submission had remained in our
genetic makeup even if our manner of living had fully evolved into the
biology of love.
If ever we manage to turn the tide, may we have a longer
stretch of time to settle into the biology of love. First culturally, then
physiologically and anatomically, and, finally, genetically.
Reclaiming Ourselves: A Personal Practice of Liberation
Personal liberation begins with love of self and acceptance
of all that has happened and cannot be changed. This means reconnecting with
our emotional selves and beginning to trust that our deepest longings
are not destructive if we receive them with love.
Personal liberation requires the willingness to experience
discomfort. There’s discomfort that comes from any shift in what’s familiar,
especially when we occupy positions of privilege. There’s discomfort from
looking deeply into our participation in our collective addiction to comfort,
and from undoing that complicity. As we move further from established norms, we
also bump up against existing structures of domination. Depending on our
circumstances, this can range from social awkwardness to executions. The risks
are not trivial.
The core aim of this practice is reclaiming wholeness. If we
gave up freedom, it means risking belonging and safety in order to choose,
freely, to show more of ourselves. If we gave up security, it means opening up
to the potential disappointment of not being seen and loved instead of
protecting ourselves by separating. This integration has a unique destination
that my sister Arnina calls the star of life.
When integrated, our presence is connected with being seen,
our truth is no longer at odds with belonging, and we can experience freedom
and security at the same time. As individuals within the context of a
patriarchal world, this subversive outcome may be as close to heaven as we can
On this foundation we rest our efforts to create the world
we know is possible, extending ourselves in service to communities and groups and
learning, collectively, how to transform patriarchy on the structural plane,
without recreating domination.
On this foundation we can raise children by consciously
choosing and embodying the matriarchal values and ways of being that we know
are our lifeline and our evolutionary lineage.
Parenting for change: supporting the freedom to disobey
Our primary task when caring for children is to provide
enough freedom and enough security for children to develop fully, without ever
having to consider a tradeoff between core needs, and thus able to continue,
perhaps with less effort, the path of love.
This means a full orientation to a child’s needs without
giving up on the adults’ needs; no punishment or reward; encouragement of choice
and responsibility without telling a child what to do; using force in only when
imminent physical risk was present; and making decisions with the child
and not for the child even in infancy.
The result of such upbringing is a person whose needs don’t
need to be reintegrated; they simply are. I remain in mourning about how rare
it is for adults to maintain an unwavering commitment to children’s freedom and
power even while having witnessed exactly such parenting. Even with commitment,
not many people have the material resources and the social environment to make
it work. It’s too precarious to rely on the capacity of individual parents to
The paradox we live in is that we are creatures that need love
in order to give love, and we have created the worst conditions for us to be
able to receive love. Somehow, we need to bootstrap ourselves to make our
children’s lives more whole, and quickly.
This means, to me, that we consciously build community with
other to spread and multiply the love. Such communities can also be the places
of experimenting with restoring reverence for life so the flow of trust in
abundance can resume, and with it the gifting ethos. If we succeed, and if we
manage to avert the worst of global warming, then our children can bond with
each other, freer than us. Perhaps their children will reach the image below,
of many stars of life, in their multiple shapes corresponding to whole, unique,
fully developed, not-necessarily-symmetrical humans, coming together with room
for all in the large circle of life.
With that, we may complete a species journey evolutionary
biologist Elisabet Sahtouris, describes as shifting from fierce competition to
deep collaboration and interdependence.
Social Evolution in Summary
As part of writing this article, I created a table that
summarizes the story this article captures: the matriarchal world of our past,
suffused as it was in the biology of love; the world of capitalist patriarchy
that we currently live in; and the possible world of the future, integrating
what we learned on the way with our original legacy. Below are seven of the
twenty six rows as a way to close the circle of this article. The full text of
the table can be found here:
Social Evolution in Summary.
Biology of Love – Origins
Patriarchy (especially under capitalism)
Biology of Love – Integration
Overall “Manner of Living”
Consistent with the biological lineage; spontaneous and
conscious actions to continue and preserve the lineage in humility
Inconsistent with the biological lineage; active attempts
to control and override the spontaneous; hubris to the point of threatening
the continued existence of the Homo Sapiens-Amans (loving) lineage and
drifting into a Homo Sapiens-Aggressans one
Consciously, through reflection and new choices, embracing
the lineage of love we came from and mourning the loss and trauma; supporting
children in having a spontaneous experience of the biology of love and
therefore being able to conserve it
Mode of thinking / reasoning
Embedded systemic / analogical orientation towards the
Local linear causal reasoning; growing
reductionism; fragmented or compartmentalized thinking interferes with
Integration of both modes through a conscious “double
look”: reflection on whole / system and its composition / parts in tandem
Contribution to Humanity / Life
Ways of organizing human social life that sustain love and
embeddedness within life, art, craft
Literature, analytic tools, philosophy, individual
artistic and intellectual expression, individual spiritual practices (e.g. yoga
and meditation), scientific knowledge
Conscious application of science and technology in service
of regeneration, rebalancing, and stewarding planetary thriving; capacity for
chosen reintegration of mind, heart, body, and spirit
Organic flow of responsiveness to self and others’ needs;
all needs in harmony
Unruly, must be tamed (by authority and/or reason; through
obedience and shame); divided into two triangles (safety and freedom) in
either/or relationship with each other
Conscious integration of safety and freedom triangles into
a “star of life” (triangles coming together) that is unique to each person
Response to Violent Attack
Varied; unprepared; vulnerable to takeover (e.g. original
patriarchal invasions; European settling of North America)
Responding to violence with violence; war
Consciously learning to mobilize the power of nonviolent
resistance for transcending the attack and including former opponents in the
View of children
Children as gift of continuity of life and support for all
Children as in need of being tamed; seen as liability
Children as carriers of renewed love legacy into the
Child rearing methods
Full integration, love, apprenticeship, support; all needs
honored in an undifferentiated manner
Obedience, shame, segregation; conditional belonging for
the obedient and normative along with constrained freedom for the powerful
Autonomy, contribution, multi-age groups, dialogic
power-sharing; conscious cultivation of both safety and freedom
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“The Freedom to Disobey”
Joan Marler. “The Myth of Universal Patriarchy:
A Critical Response to Cynthia Eller’s Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory”. Sage Journals,
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Gift. From a distance. Naples, April 27-29, 2016. Proceedings forthcoming.
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