Saturday, 22 July 2006

Review: The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, Leonard Shlain (1998)

The advent of literacy has been mapped to a significant degree. Shlain asks a further question: why, at the same time as humans discovered literacy, were the many ancient goddess cults suddenly eclipsed by monotheism?

I should start by saying that I didn't finish reading the book. Shlain is a medical doctor and his basic premise — that the advent of literacy changed the perceptual attitudes of those peoples, 3,000 years ago, so that they began to think differently than they had previously — is a grand idea, and you can feel his excitement. (It apparently came to him during a visit to some ancient ruins in Greece.) As a doctor, he is uniquely positioned to ask questions about perception and cognitive processes.

But beyond the initial discussion, the book begins to pale. It often has an undergraduate feel, as he lists more and more things as evidence of a radical change in thinking. The relentless accumulation of disparate facts eventually palls. Methinks he doth protest too much.

In a review of the book available online Thom Hartmann encapsulates the theory: "when we teach abstract alphabets — the type where the letters are not pictures of the meaning conveyed — to children at an early age, we cause the abstract/male side of their brains to rise up and take over, suppressing the intuitive/holistic/female side."

Hmm... Could such stimuli so radically and suddenly alter human behaviour?

Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky worked on the Marxist theory that "man transforms physical nature with the use of tools, and in the process of tool use he transforms his own nature". "Vygotsky extended this to signs (language, writing, number systems — any abstract representational system created by Man)," says academic Anna Brill on a Web site, "stating that any change in sign systems caused an alteration in intellectual processes."

Shlain takes this theory further by noting that the Bible contains many stories that denigrate women, and he also examines stories from Greek mythology to expand on it. The ancient Hebrews, who wrote the Old Testament, had already mastered the alphabet before the events it details occurred. The rise of left-brain thinking, the theory goes, has subsequently helped to nurture Western culture, science and politics. And, in tandem, there have been many events of great horror: its benefits have sometimes been overshadowed by its downside.

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