Nurturing Our Humanity by Riane Eisler and Douglas P. Fry

How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future

Thirty Years Later

I’d been looking forward to reading this after reading Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and The Blade two years ago, though it was originally published in 1987, over 30 years ago.

Riane Eisler is a systems scientist, cultural historian, educator, speaker and pioneering attorney working for women’s and children’s human rights, and the recipient of many awards. Her work on cultural transformation has inspired scholars and social activists. She is President of the Centre For Partnership Studies dedicated to research and education.

Douglas P Fry is an American anthropologist. He has written extensively on aggression, conflict, and conflict resolution in his own books and in journals such as “Science” and “American Anthropologist.” His work frequently engages the debate surrounding the origins of war, arguing against claims that war or lethal aggression is rooted in human evolution. He is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

A Guide to Raising More Conscious, Socially Responsible, Caring Future Generations

Nurturing HumanityBringing together these two authors has created an immensely readable work that describes how our societies and families and cultures, not to mention our brains, have been shaped by a system of domination that favours hierarchical structures, ranking of one kind over another, authoritarian parenting and leadership, fueled by fear, tamed by punishment, sustained by conditioning that makes silencing and oppression the norm.

Eisler and Fry argue that the path to human survival and well-being in the 21st century hinges on our human capacities to cooperate and promote social equality, including gender equality.

Social systems that orient closely to the domination side of the continuum are ultimately held together by fear and force. In this system, beliefs and social structures support rigid top-down rankings, and the closer a culture or subculture orients to it, the more stressful it is.

Despite the narratives that exist that suggest humanity is hardwired for ruthless selfishness and violence, there is abundant evidence, referenced here, that:

“Indicates that humans have also evolved powerful capacities, indeed proclivities, for empathy, equity, helping, caring and various other prosocial acts.”

There are examples from ancient times past (anthropological evidence) and present in contemporary Nordic societies, one of the significant differences being a greater sense of partnership and equality between couples and also in the value attributed to “caring industries”, a sector of society that has been virtually ignored by academia, and undervalued, underfunded by governments worldwide.

In contrast, the partnership configuration is more peaceful, egalitarian, gender-balanced, and environmentally sustainable. As in the strivings of countless families, businesses and communities today, the partnership system consists of beliefs and structures that support relations based on mutual benefit, respect and accountability.

Once we understand these dynamics, of domination versus partnership, and the characteristics of each, the imbalance in the world becomes glaringly obvious. This work gives multiple examples and acknowledges that pockets of the partnership approach do exist and are growing, but there are significant challenges to be addressed before we can truly begin to benefit from the improved standard of living that more ‘caring societies’ can bring.

Fear and force are not woven into the cultural tapestry of of the partnership system because they are not needed to maintain rigid top-down rankings, whether it is man over woman, race over race, religion over religion, or nation over nation. Instead of hierarchies of domination, some partnership societies and leaders use power to empower rather than disempower. So love, care, nurturance, and creativity can flourish.

New Evidence About Human Nature

There is now a plethora of evidence from many different fields, ranging from ethnography, history and psychology to genetics, neuroscience and ethology that provide a shock-and-awe set of counter arguments to the assumption that selfishness and violence are central to what it means to be human.

Nurturing Our Humanity Riane Eisler Douglas Fry Caring Economics

Photo by CDC on Pexels

Human nature has an enormous genetic capacity for empathy, working together sharing, caring and helping, however we know from neuroscience that stress can inhibit this capacity by changing our brain neurochemistry. And starting with the crucial early family relations, domination oriented societies are extremely stressful.

We Need A Caring Econonics

As long as caring is culturally devalued, we cannot realistically expect caring social and economic policies designed to promote human well-being and protection of the natural environment. Measures of economic health such as GDP and GNP include as “productive” work, those activities that harm and take life, such as selling guns and cigarettes with their resulting health and funeral costs – but they fail to count as productive  the hard work of people who care for children, the sick, the elderly and others at home, and accord very low value to this work in the market.

The book ends with four cornerstones of Partnership, Childhood Gender, Economics and Narratives & Language, with recommendations and examples of policies and practices towards improving these areas, bringing new economic and social interventions that give value to caring and caregiving work in both the market and nonmarket sectors.

Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future

Riane Eisler and Douglas Fry

I can’t recommend this book highly enough for anyone at a loss to why the world seems to have become so divisive and uncaring, this deeply researched, erudite text stands back and shows us where we’ve been and where we could go, and what policies need to change to bring us to a more humane era.

There isn’t a page where I haven’t highlighted a passage, reading this book makes one see the world differently, even though we already knew it. It makes me realise I’ve been working on evolving my brain for years, undoing the conditioning, rewiring it for a better way to live and be.

It makes me realise how starved I am for stories/films that present and represent the partnership model of society, rather than the proliferation of narratives that continuously adher to and promulgate the domination model. And why those stories have been having such a profoundly negative effect on me recently. The combination of empathising with characters and being witness to their maltreatment by other characters (or the author in their creation of them) is affecting my brain!

“Understanding the origins, natures, and impacts of partnership and domination systems on human lives and societies is crucial to human well-being and survival.”

Lifting the veil on the system behind so much of how our world works, to keep the domination system in place, once aware of it, it is almost overwhelming, the steep gradient of the uphill battle before us, however I like to believe we are on the way, that a new vision of future generations will embrace the partnership model more and more.

Totally fascinating and Highly Recommended.

Further Listening

Podcast : “Is Human Nature Peaceful?” Douglas Fry discusses human nature, our potential for peace, and some of the archeological/anthropological evidence behind his work.

Podcast : Behind Greatness by Inspire North : Riane Eisler JD, PhD(h) – President, Center for Partnership Studies / Author / Speaker – Building a World that Supports Capacity for Caring, Creativity & Consciousness 

The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler

Our History, Our Future

This is a book I’ve been fascinated by and slow reading over the past couple of months. Today, somewhat reluctantly, as it’s a large and in-depth work that can’t really be summarised, I decided I needed to write about it, especially as the sequel is due out and I’ve pre-ordered it, so I wanted to share my thoughts on this first. And because it’s brilliant and deserves a much wider readership.

Riane Eisler was born in Vienna, Austria. When she was a child she and her parents fled for their lives from the Nazis, first to Cuba and finally to the United States, thus she experienced three different cultures, each with their own version of truth and reality.

Very early in my life I saw that what people in different cultures consider given – just the way things are – is not the same everywhere. I also very early developed a passionate concern about the human situation.

She began to ask herself many questions:

Why do we hunt and persecute each other? Why is our world so full of man’s infamous inhumanity to man – and woman? How can humans be so brutal to their own kind? What is it that chronically tilts us toward cruelty rather than kindness, toward war rather than peace, toward destruction rather than actualization?

These and other questions lead her to re-examine the past, present and future, captured here in The Chalice and the Blade, looking at human history and pre-history and at both male and female aspects of humanity and in particular, those societies where the feminine aspect was revered.

This work gave rise to what she termed:
– the dominator model (popularly referred to as patriarchy or matriarchy) – the ranking of one half of humanity over another and
– the partnership model  – based on the principle of linking, affiliation and cooperation

Her work further suggested that:

the original direction in the mainstream of our cultural evolution was toward partnership but that, following a period of chaos and almost total cultural disruption, there occurred a fundamental shift.

Hence the title The Chalice (the life-generating and nurturing powers of the universe – in our time symbolized by the ancient chalice or grail) and the Blade the power to take rather than give life that is the ultimate power to establish and enforce domination.

She reevaluates the past and present, sharing insights from research that has often been ignored or misinterpreted.

The chapters tell a story that begins thousands of years before our recorded (or written history). Of how the original partnership direction of Western culture veered off into a bloody 5,000 year dominator detour.

showing that our mounting global problems are in large part the logical consequences of a dominator model of social organisation and that there is another course which, as co-creators of our own future experience, is still ours to choose.

Both the mythical and archaeological evidence indicate that perhaps the most notable quality of the pre-dominator mind was its recognition of our oneness with all of nature,which lies at the heart of both Neolithic and the Cretan worship of the Goddess. Increasingly, the work of modern ecologists indicates that this earlier quality of mind, in our time often associated with some types of Eastern spirituality, was far advanced beyond today’s environmentally destructive ideology.

From the paleolithic, the neolithic, Old Europe, Goddess worship and the unique long lasting civilization of Crete to the invaders, the colonizers, warfare, slavery and sacrifice, we see the world and our reality through a different lens and yet once you’ve seen it, you recognize it, without realizing how it acts on us, in our homes, our workplaces, ours schools, institutions, governments.

It is so interesting to read this, originally written in 1987, over 30 years ago, in the context of our reality today. It provides a unique perspective on our history and analyzes it rigorously and yet in an easily understandable and accessible way, synthesizing information from a varieties of sources and disciplines to give us this helpful view of the influences that have been directing our progress (or lack of) suggesting the greater role that a more feminine (yin) collaborative, partnership approach might bring.

It is a seminal work in understanding the impact of repressing the positive characteristics of the feminine and demonstrating that a more partnership oriented model can reap rewards that benefit not just the individual, but the community. Despite the fact that our media is full of much doom and gloom, it is possible to look a little closer to home and see examples of people working in partnership and collaboration, of people leaving behind corporations and institutions and choosing ways of living and working that allow for greater creative expression.

She continues to ask questions, and these two that she mentions, seem fitting to what will follow:

Is a shift from a system leading to chronic wars,  social injustice, and ecological imbalance to one of peace, social justice and ecological balance a realistic possibility? Most important, what changes in social structure would make such a transformation possible?

Though this was written 30 years ago, there is a sequel due to be published in August 2019, in collaboration with peace anthropologist Douglas P. Fry Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future exploring how behaviors, values, and socio-economic institutions develop differently in these two environments, revealing connections between disturbing trends like climate change denial and regressions to strongman rule. It combines Eisler’s partnership-domination social scale with extensive evidence from neuroscience and other fields.

It shows that, contrary to popular beliefs about “selfish genes” driving human behavior, how people think and feel is heavily influenced by whether they grow up in partnership or domination oriented environments. It also documents that in reality humans in the course of evolution developed a propensity for empathy, caring, and creativity, which is, however, inhibited in domination systems. It further points to interventions that can accelerate the contemporary movement toward partnership and prevent further regressions to domination.

About the Author
Riane Eisler, JD, PhD (hon), is President of the Center for Partnership Studies, Editor-in-Chief of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Partnership Studies, internationally known as a systems scientist, cultural historian, pioneering attorney working for women’s and children’s human rights, and recipient of many awards. Her groundbreaking books include The Chalice and the Blade, Tomorrow’s Children, and The Real Wealth of Nations. She lectures worldwide, keynoting conferences, addressing the U.N. General Assembly, U.S. State Department, corporations, and universities. Her website is https://rianeeisler.com/.