Review of Sex and Society

Alfred C. Haddon

Sex and Society: Studies in the Social Psychology of Sex. Ву WILLIAM I. THOMAS, Associate Professor of Sociology in the University of Chicago. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press; London : T. Fisher Unwin, 1907. $1.50 net.  

Professor W. I. Thomas has endeavored to trace the psychological origin of some of the sex-relations in human societies in a series of interesting and suggestive essays which he has recently incorporated in a book entitled Sex and Society. The table of contents indicates the range of the study; a discussion on the organic differences in the sexes being followed by a series of chapters on sex and primitive social control, social feeling, primitive industry, and primitive morality. The psychology of exogamy, and of modesty and clothing, is dealt with ; and finally there are two remarkably good chapters on the adventitious character of woman and on the mind of woman and the lower races.

A noticeable feature of the book is the recognition of the latest results of biological investigation and the psychological interpretation of personal and social phenomena. The late Dr. A. Bastian was always insisting on the importance of psychology in ethnological inquiries, and there is no doubt that he was perfectly right; for in all probability it is from this quarter that most of the solutions of our problems will come; but it must be the psychology which is based upon observation and experiment—a biological psychology—as opposed to the academic psychology of the old school. It is this broad outlook which enables the author to take a sane view of matters which too often have been the subject of vain theorizing. Take, for example, his treatment of mother-right or metronomy, so often erroneously termed matriarchy. He says (p. 66) :

It has been very generally assumed that maternal descent is due solely to uncertainty of paternity, and that an admission that the maternal system has been universal is practically an admission of promiscuity. Opponents of this theory have consequently felt called upon to minimize the importance of

(114)maternal descent. But descent through females is not, in fact, fully explained by uncertainty of parentage on the male side. It is due to the larger social fact, including this biological one, that the bond between mother and child is the closest in nature, and that the group grew up about the more stationary female .... for the association of the woman with the child is immediate and perforce, but the immediate interest of the man is in the woman, and his interest in the child is secondary and mediated through her. . . But while it is natural that the children and the group should grow up about the mother, it is not conceivable that woman should definitely or long control the activities of society, especially on their motor side. In view of his superior power of making movements and applying force, the male must inevitably assume control of the life-direction of the group, no matter what the genesis of the group .... male authority is only thinly veiled or not at all (p. 69).

It is difficult for one who has studied natives in the field to believe that woman ever had any real authority. She may have been at one time the center of social interest and stability, but not of social activity. Wherever we find mother-right, there we find the predominance of the maternal uncle; and indeed the importance of this relationship often persists after a society has become definitely patronymic.

There is undoubted truth in the author's statement that "an examination of the early habits of man and an analysis of the instincts which persist in him show that he has been essentially a predaceous animal, fighting his way up at every step of the struggle for existence" (p. 97) ; but it appears to the present writer that he somewhat overemphasizes this struggle, or rather that he does not sufficiently recognize other factors in human social progress. For example, nowhere does Professor Thomas allude to the possibility of the progenitors of man having been essentially social animals. There is very good reason for assuming that the intelligence and altruistic behavior, if one may so term it, of such animals as beavers, many ruminants, and monkeys are due to their sociability. This seems to be a main determining factor, especially when it is combined with relative physical weakness. So far as the evidence of fossil man is concerned, there is no reason to believe that he ever was a well-armed or particularly strong animal, and it is extremely difficult to understand how he could have survived, not to say triumphed, in the struggle for existence, had not his intelligence and emotions been quickened by sociability and had he not remedied his individual weakness by co-operation. It is beside the mark to turn

(115) for evidence to the higher apes, such as the gorilla or orang-outang; they do not appear to be particularly sociable brutes ; but that is of less consequence to them on account of their great strength, powerful jaws and teeth, and fierce disposition. They may be regarded rather as similar culs de sac—forms which were never likely to lead anywhere, even if man had not appeared on the scene, because, being strong, they were self-sufficient, and, having abandoned the support of mutual aid, they were in danger of ultimate extinction after a longer or shorter period of success, this being the nemesis of individualism. May it not be that social habits combined with a specialization in braininess, the erect attitude, and the absence of protective and aggressive organs, were the main determining factors in man's elevation from not-man? All along the upward path there was the struggle against nature, the fighting with wild beasts, as well as internecine struggle; but all these never entirely swamped the earlier sociability—a sociability which is so marked a characteristic of many of even the less advanced of existing peoples—the chief exceptions to this generalization appear to be certain hunting tribes, such as the Veddahs and other jungle folk; but our knowledge of the social condition of these types is lamentably deficient. If this view be correct, the statement that "morality, sympathy, and altruism are of tribal origin, and have their roots in (i) the love of offspring, (2) the sensitivity connected with courtship, and (3) the comradeship which arises among men in prosecuting vital interests in common" (p. 120), is only partially true, as the rudiments of these social virtues must have long antedated a "tribal" condition.

The "prematriarchal stage" [or rather the "premetronymic stage"] , where the people "live in scattered bands, held together loosely by convenience, safety, and inertia, and the male is the leader," of Professor Thomas (p. 68) is practically the same as that which, according to Mr. Atkinson,[1] was evolved from "the Cyclopean family" of the semi-human stage, a family group, exclusive of adult sons, headed by the solitary polygamous [polygynous] patriarch. Professor Thomas believes "the Botocudos, Fuegians, Eskimos, West Australians, Bushmen, and Veddahs represent this primitive stage more or less completely ;" but certainly the men of western Australia and the Eskimo have traveled very far from the autocratic, jealous males predicated by Atkinson and Lang.

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It is probable that the premetronymic stage was carried over from the man-apes to the distinctively humans, and the metronymic stage may have arisen when man became more carnivorous in diet. When this took place, the men would have to roam farther afield, and the women would be more stationary; and here we may accept Professor Thomas' explanation of the rise of metronomy. There are, however, certain students who believe that mother-right was not a universal stage in the history of man, and they hold that, at all events in some cases, father-right was a natural development from the primitive monandrous family.

In arguing that "our susceptibility to the opinion of others and our dependence on their good-will are genetically referable to sexual life" (p. и з), Professor Thomas considers that "this view would be completely substantiated if we could show that the qualities of vanity and susceptibility in question are present in any species where it is impossible to assume that they were developed in connection with the struggle for food and as the result of the survival of types showing a tendency to combine and co-operate in the effort to get food." He instances the dog as having a "highly developed susceptibility to the appreciation of others," and adds "the species which he represents has had no history except a sexual history capable of developing this mental attitude" (p. 114). The sexual history of the ancestral dog may have contributed to his behavior "in a public-spirited or moral manner," but surely the social habits of wild dogs have also had a good deal to do with the traits which man has utilized and improved. So also with regard to man, while it is true that "it is certainly in virtue of susceptibility to the opinion of others that society works to bring the individual under control and make him a member of society" (p. 119), yet, from the point of view here advocated, the statement that "it is doubtful whether this could have been accomplished if a peculiar attitude of responsiveness to opinion had not arisen in sexual relations, reinforcing the more general and cognitive impressionability," seems to place this susceptibility on too narrow a foundation.

The statement that "the bulk of morality turns upon food rather than sex-relations" (p. 150) is perhaps true so far as the actual number of regulations is concerned, but certain sex prohibitions are of fundamental importance—so much so that, whereas most of the offenses of the nature-folk against individuals or property are more in the nature of misdemeanors, incest, or sexual intercourse

( 117) with forbidden persons, is regarded as a heinous crime, and we may safely regard it as the first "sin."

Surely Professor Thomas minimizes the amount of discipline that the youths of a nature-folk have to undergo. It is true they "do not generally punish children," but nevertheless they are instructed in good behavior, and the effects of wrong-doing are pointed out. Especially is this the case during the initiation ceremonies, when the lads are instructed and warned in a manner that is calculated to make a lasting impression. Discipline is generally of two kinds : mild and prolonged, or sharp and relatively short. From the nature of the case, "primitive" people are practically precluded from the former method. They certainly frequently succeed in enforcing the latter form of discipline, and as the education takes place at the most impressionable period of life, it is generally very effectual. The training of the young certainly encourages individuality, but a social constraint is generally apparent all the time, and this is strongly emphasized at the property ceremonies. Further, the narration of folk-tales tends to illustrate the benefits of well-doing and the evils resulting from anti-social conduct.

In the chapter on the adventitious character of woman Professor Thomas says :

The male in many of the lower forms [of animals] is very insignificant in size, economically useless (as among the bees), often a parasite on the female, and, as many biologists hold, merely a secondary device or afterthought of nature, designed to secure greater variation than can be had by the usual mode of reproduction. In other words, he is of use to the species by assisting the female to reproduce progressively fitter forms.

While there is a great deal of truth in the last sentence, the previous ones are open to criticism. Sexual differentiation appears among the Protozoa and occurs among all the Metazoa, however low in the scale; thus the male can scarcely be said to be "merely a secondary device." Where "economically useless" or parasitic males occur in some groups of Invertebrates, they are more frequent among the most specialized members of their respective groups; and thus any argument drawn from them has no weight.

Very suggestive is the hypothesis that the woman and child were the fixed point—the point to which the roaming, fighting man came back. The attention of woman was turned to industries, and she lived in the house she had built. "She domesticated man and assisted him in domesticating the animals." The occupation of man

( 118) had been almost exclusively the pursuit of animals or conflict with his neighbors, and in this connection he had become the inventor of weapons and traps, and in addition had learned the value of acting in concert with his companions. When game became scarce, man found himself forced to abandon his destructive and predaceous activities and adopt the settled occupations of woman. To these he brought inventive ability and a capacity for organized action, and in course of time he usurped the primacy of woman in the industrial pursuits, and eventually he reduced woman to "a condition of parasitism which, in our middle and so-called higher classes, has profoundly affected their physical, mental, and moral life." Professor Thomas is to be heartily commended for the manner in which he develops this theme with regard to the mental and moral characteristics of woman.

The foregoing remarks must not be considered in any way as indicating adverse criticism. We are all "feeling our way," and the present writer offers his sincere congratulations to his friend, the author of this valuable and stimulating contribution to sociological literature.



  1. Social Origins, by A. Lang; Primal Law, by J. J. Atkinson (1903), p. 230.

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