Hoe Cultures: A Type of Non-Patriarchal Society

Epistemic status: mostly facts, a few speculations.

TW: lots of mentions of violence, abuse, and rape.

There is a tremendous difference, in pre-modern societies, between those that farmed with the plow and those that farmed with the hoe.

If you’re reading this, you live in a plow culture, or are heavily influenced by one. Europe, the Middle East, and most of Asia developed plow cultures. These are characterized by reliance on grains such as wheat and rice, which provide a lot of calories per acre in exchange for a lot of hard physical labor.  They also involve large working livestock, such as horses, donkeys, and oxen.

Hoe cultures, by contrast, arose in certain parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, southeast Asia, and Oceania.

Hoe agriculture is sometimes called horticulture, because it is more like planting a vegetable garden than farming.  You clear land with a machete and dig it with a hoe.  This works for crops such as bananas, breadfruit, coconuts, taro, yam, calabashes and squashes, beans, and maize.  Horticulturalists also keep domestic animals like chickens, dogs, goats, sheep, and pigs — but never cattle. They may hunt or fish.  They engage in small-scale home production of pottery and cloth.[1]

Hoe agriculture is extremely productive per hour of labor, much more so than preindustrial grain farming, but requires a vast amount of land for a small population. Horticulturists also tend to practice shifting cultivation, clearing new land when the old land is used up, rather than repeatedly plowing the same field — something that is only possible when fertile land is “too cheap to meter.”  Hoe cultures therefore have lots of leisure, but low population density, low technology, and few material objects.[1]

I live with a toddler, so I’ve seen a lot of the Disney movie Moana, which had a lot of consultation with Polynesians to get the culture right. This chipper little song is a pretty nice illustration of hoe culture: you see people digging with hoes, carrying bananas and fish, singing about coconuts and taro root, making pottery and cloth, and you see a pig and a chicken tripping through the action.

Hoe Culture and Gender Roles

Ester Boserup, in her 1970 book Woman’s Role in Economic Development [2], notes that in hoe cultures women do the hoeing, while in plow cultures men do the plowing.

This is because plowing is so physically difficult that men, with greater physical strength, have a comparative advantage at agricultural labor, while they have no such advantage in horticulture.

Men in hoe cultures clear the land (which is physically challenging; machete-ing trees is quite the upper-body workout), hunt, and engage in war. But overall, hour by hour, they spend most of their time in leisure.  (Or in activities that are not directly economically productive, like politics, ritual, or the arts.)

Women in hoe cultures, as in all known human cultures, do most of the childcare.  But hoeing is light enough work that they can take small children into the fields with them and watch them while they plant and weed. Plowing, hunting, and managing large livestock, by contrast, are forms of work too heavy or dangerous to accommodate simultaneous childcare.

The main gender difference between hoe and plow cultures is, then, that women in hoe cultures are economically productive while women in plow cultures are largely not.

This has strong implications for marriage customs.  In a plow culture, a husband supports his wife; in a hoe culture, a wife supports her husband.

Correspondingly, plow cultures tend to have a tradition of dowry (the bride’s parents compensate the groom financially for taking an extra mouth to feed off their hands) while hoe cultures tend to practice bride price (the groom compensates the bride’s family financially for the loss of a working woman) or bride service (the groom labors for the bride’s family, again as compensation for taking her labor.)

Hoe cultures are much more likely to be polygamous than plow cultures.  Since land is basically free, a man in a hoe culture is rich in proportion to how much labor he can accumulate — and labor means women. The more wives, the more labor.  In a plow culture, however, extra labor must come from men, which usually means hired labor, or slaves or serfs.  Additional wives would only mean more mouths to feed.

Because hoe cultures need women for labor, they allow women more autonomy.  Customs like veiling or seclusion (purdah) are infeasible when women work in the fields.  Hoe-culture women can usually divorce their husbands if they pay back the bride-price.

Barren women, widows, and unchaste women or rape victims in pre-modern plow cultures often face severe stigma (and practices like sati and honor killings) which do not occur in hoe cultures. Women everywhere are valued for their reproductive abilities, and men everywhere have an evolutionary incentive to prefer faithful mates; but in a hoe culture, women have economic value aside from reproduction, and thus society can’t afford to kill them as soon as their reproductive value is diminished.

“Matriarchy” is considered a myth by modern anthropologists; there is no known society, present or past, where women ruled. However, there are matrilinear societies, where descent is traced through the mother, and matrilocal societies, where the groom goes to live near the bride and her family.  All matrilinear and matrilocal societies in Africa are hoe cultures (though some hoe cultures are patrilinear and/or patrilocal.)[3]

The Seneca, a Native American people living around Lake Ontario, are a good example of a hoe culture where women enjoyed a great deal of power. [4] Traditionally, they cultivated the Three Sisters: maize, beans, and squash.  The women practiced horticulture, led councils, had rights over all land, and distributed food and household stores within the clan.  Descent was matrilineal, and marriages (which were monogamous) were usually arranged by the mothers. Of the Seneca wife, Henry Dearborn noted wistfully in his journal, “She lives with him from love, for she can obtain her own means of support better than he.”  Living, childrearing, and work organization was communal within a clan (living within a longhouse) and generally organized by elder women.

Hoe and Plow Cultures Today

A 2012 study [5] found that people descended from plow cultures are more likely to agree with the statements “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women” and “On the whole, men make better political leaders than women do” than people descended from hoe cultures.

“Traditional plough-use is positively correlated with attitudes reflecting gender inequality and negatively correlated with female labor force participation, female firm ownership, and female participation in politics.”  This remains true after controlling for a variety of societal variables, such as religion, race, climate, per-capita GDP, history of communism, civil war, and others.

Even among immigrants to Europe and the US, history of ancestral plow-use is still strongly linked to female labor force participation and attitudes about gender roles.

Patriarchy Through a Materialist Lens

Friedrich Engels, in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, was the first to argue that patriarchy was a consequence of the rise of (plow) agriculture.  Alesina et al summarize him as follows:

He argued that gender inequality arose due to the intensification of agriculture, which resulted in the emergence of private property, which was monopolized by men. The control of private property allowed men to subjugate women and to introduce exclusive paternity over their children, replacing matriliny with patrilineal descent, making wives even more dependent on husbands and their property. As a consequence, women were no longer active and equal participants in community life.

Hoe societies (and hunter-gatherer societies) have virtually no capital. Land can be used, but not really owned, as its produce is unreliable or non-renewable, and its boundaries are too large to guard. Technology is too primitive for any tool to be much of a capital asset.  This is why they are poor in material culture, and also why they are egalitarian; nobody can accumulate more than his neighbors if there just isn’t any way to accumulate stuff at all.

I find the materialistic approach to explaining culture appealing, even though I’m not a Marxist.  Economic incentives — which can be inferred by observing the concrete facts of how a people makes its living — provide elegant explanations for the customs, traditions, and ideals that emerge in a culture.  We do not have to presume that those who live in other cultures are stupid or fundamentally alien; we can assume they respond to incentives just as we do.  And, when we see the world through a materialist lens, we do not hope to change culture by mere exhortation. Oppression occurs when people see an advantage in oppressing; it is subdued when the advantage disappears, or when the costs become too high.  Individual people can follow their consciences even when it differs from the surrounding pressures of their culture, but when we talk about aggregates and whole populations, we don’t expect personal heroism to shift systems by itself.

A materialist analysis of gender relations would say that women are not going to escape oppression until they are economically independent.  And, even in the developed world, women mostly are not.

Women around the world, including in America, are much more likely to live in poverty than men.  This is because women have lower-paying jobs and struggle to support single-mother households. Women everywhere do most of the childcare, and most women have children at some point in their lives, so an economy that does not allow a woman to support and care for children with her own labor is not an economy that will ever allow most women to be economically independent.

Just working outside the home does not make a woman economically independent. If a family is living in a “two-income trap”[6], in which the wife’s income is just enough to pay for the childcare she does not personally provide, then the wife’s net economic contribution to the family is zero.

Sure, much of the “gender pay gap” disappears after controlling for college major and career choice [7][8]. Men report more interest in making a lot of money and being leaders, while women report more interest in being helpful and working with people rather than things. But a lot of this is probably due to the fact that most women rationally assume that they will take time to raise children, and that their husband will be the primary breadwinner, so they are less likely to make early education and career choices on the basis of earning the most money.

Economist Claudia Goldin believes the main reason for the gender pay gap is the cost of temporal flexibility; women want more work flexibility in order to raise children, and so they are paid less.  Childless men and women have virtually no wage disparity.[9]

Since women who will ever have children (which is most women) are still usually economically dependent on men even in the developed world, and strongly disadvantaged if they don’t have a male provider, is it any wonder that women are still more submissive and agreeable, higher in neuroticism and mood disorders, and subject to greater pressure to appeal sexually?  Their livelihood still depends on finding a mate to support them.

In order to change the economic incentives to make women financially independent, it would have to be no big deal to be a single mother. This probably means an economy whose resources were shifted from luxury towards leisure. Mothers of young children need a lot of time away from economic work; if we “bought” time instead of fancy goods with our high-tech productivity gains, a single mother in a technological economy might be able to support children by herself.  But industrial-age workplaces are not set up to allow employees flexibility, and modern states generally put up heavy barriers to easy, flexible self-employment or ultra-frugal living, through licensing laws, zoning regulations, and quality regulations on goods.

Morality and Religion under Hoe Societies

It’s hard to trust what we read about hoe-culture mores, because these generally aren’t societies that develop writing, and what we read is filtered through the opinions of Western researchers or missionaries. But, as far as I can tell, they are mostly animist and polytheist cultures. There are many “spirits” or “gods”, some friendly and some unfriendly, but none supreme.  Magical practices (“if you do this ritual, you’ll get that outcome”)  seem to be common.

Monotheist and henotheist cultures (one god, or one god above all other gods, usually male) seem to be more of a plow-culture thing, though not all plow cultures follow that pattern.

The presence of goddesses doesn’t correlate that much to the condition of women in a society, contrary to the (now falsified) belief that pre-agrarian societies were matriarchal and goddess-worshipping.

The Code of Handsome Lake is an interesting example of a moral and religious code written by a man from a hoe culture. Handsome Lake was a religious reformer among the Iroquois in the 18th century.  His Code is heavily influenced by Christianity (his account of Hell and of the apocalypse closely follow the New Testament and are not found in earlier Iroquois beliefs) but includes some distinctively Iroquois features.

Notably, he was strongly against spousal and child abuse, and in favor of family harmony, including this touching passage:

“Parents disregard the warnings of their children. When a child says, “Mother, I want you to stop wrongdoing,” the child speaks straight words and the Creator says that the child speaks right and the mother must obey. Furthermore the Creator proclaims that such words from a child are wonderful and that the mother who disregards then takes the wicked part. The mother may reply, “Daughter, stop your noise. I know better than you. I am the older and you are but a child. Think not that you can influence me by your speaking.” Now when you tell this message to your people say that it is wrong to speak to children in such words.”

Are Hoe Societies Good?

They’re not paradise. (Though, note that Adam and Eve were gardeners in Eden.)

As stated before, horticulturalists are poor. People in hoe cultures don’t necessarily have less to eat than their pre-modern agrarian peers, but they have less stuff, and they are much poorer than anyone in industrialized societies.

Polygamy also has distinct disadvantages.  It promotes venereal disease. It also excludes a population of unmarried men from society, which leads to violence and exposes the excluded men to poverty and isolation.

And you can’t replicate hoe societies across the globe even if you wanted to.  Hoe agriculture is so land-intensive that it couldn’t possibly support a population of seven billion.

Furthermore, while women in hoe societies have more autonomy and are subject to less gendered violence than women in pre-modern plow societies, it’s not clear how that compares to women in modern societies with rule of law. Hoe societies are still traditionalist and communitarian. Men’s and women’s spheres are still separate. Life in a hoe society is not going to exactly match a modern feminist’s ideal.  These aren’t WEIRD people, they’re something quite different, for better or for worse, and it’s hard to know exactly how the experience is different just by reading a few papers.

Hoe cultures are interesting not because we should model ourselves after them, but because they are an existence proof that non-patriarchal societies can exist for millennia.  Conservatives can always argue that a new invention hasn’t been proved stable or sustainable. Hoe cultures have been proved incredibly long-lasting.


[1]Braudel, Fernand. Civilization and capitalism, 15th-18th century: The structure of everyday life. Vol. 1. Univ of California Press, 1992.

[2]Boserup, Ester. Woman’s role in economic development. Earthscan, 2007.

[3]Goody, Jack, and Joan Buckley. “Inheritance and women’s labour in Africa.” Africa 43.2 (1973): 108-121.

[4]Jensen, Joan M. “Native American women and agriculture: A Seneca case study.” Sex Roles 3.5 (1977): 423-441.

[5]Alesina, Alberto, Paola Giuliano, and Nathan Nunn. “On the origins of gender roles: Women and the plough.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 128.2 (2013): 469-530.

[6]Warren, Elizabeth, and Amelia Warren Tyagi. The two-income trap: Why middle-class parents are going broke. Basic Books, 2007.

[7]Daymont, Thomas N., and Paul J. Andrisani. “Job preferences, college major, and the gender gap in earnings.” Journal of Human Resources (1984): 408-428.

[8]Zafar, Basit. “College major choice and the gender gap.” Journal of Human Resources 48.3 (2013): 545-595.

[9]Waldfogel, Jane. “Understanding the” family gap” in pay for women with children.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 12.1 (1998): 137-156.


Patriarchy is the Problem

Epistemic Status: speculative. We’ve got some amateur Biblical exegesis in here, and some mentions of abuse.

I’m starting to believe that patriarchy is the root of destructive authoritarianism, where patriarchy simply means the system of social organization where families are hierarchical and headed by the father. To wit:

  • Patriarchy justifies abuse of wives by husbands and abuse of children by parents
  • The family is the model of the state; pretty much everybody, from Confucius to Plato, believes that governmental hierarchy evolved from familial hierarchy; rulers from George Washington to Ataturk are called “the father of his country”
  • There is no clear separation between hierarchy and abuse. The phenomenon of dominant/submissive behavior among primates closely parallels what humans would consider domestic abuse.

Abuse in Mammalian Context

A study of male vervet monkeys [1] gives an illustration of what I mean by abuse.

Serotonin levels closely track a monkey’s status in the dominance hierarchy. When a monkey is dominant, his serotonin is high, and is sustained at that high level by observing submissive displays from other monkeys.  The more serotonin a dominant monkey has in his system, the more affection and the less aggression he displays; you can see this experimentally by injecting him with a serotonin precursor. When a high status monkey is full of serotonin, he relaxes and becomes more tolerant towards subordinates[2]; the subordinates, feeling less harassed, offer him fewer submissive displays; this rapidly drops the dominant’s serotonin levels, leaving him more anxious and irritable; he then engages in more dominance displays; the submissive monkeys then display more submission, thereby raising the dominant’s serotonin level and starting all over again.

This cycle (known as regulation-dysregulation theory, or RDT) is basically the same as the cycle of abuse in humans, whose stages are rising tension (the dominant is low in serotonin), acute violence (dominance display), reconciliation/honeymoon (the dominant’s serotonin spikes after the subordinate submits), and calm (the dominant is high in serotonin and tolerant towards subordinates.)

In each case, tolerance extends only as long as submissive behavior continues.  Anger, threats, and violence are the result of any slackening of submissive displays.  I consider this to be a working definition of both dominance and abuse: the abuser is easily slighted and considers any lèse-majesté to be grounds for an outburst.

Most conditions of oppression among humans follow this pattern.  Slaves would be harshly punished for “disrespecting” masters, subordinates must show “respect” to gangsters and warlords on pain of violence, despots require rituals of submission or tribute, etc.  I believe it to be an ancient and even pre-human pattern.

The prototypical opposite of freedom, I think, is slavery, imprisonment, or captivity.  Concepts like “rights” are more modern and less universal. But even ancient peoples would agree that to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, and not free to physically escape from him, is an unhappy state. These are more or less the conditions that cause CPTSD — kidnapping, imprisonment and institutionalization, concentration camps and POW camps, slavery, and domestic abuse — situations in which one is at another’s mercy for a prolonged period of time and unable to escape.

A captive subordinate must appease the abuser in order to avoid retaliation; this has a soul-warping effect. Symptoms of CPTSD include “a chronic and pervasive sense of helplessness, paralysis of initiative, shame, guilt, self-blame, a sense of defilement or stigma” and “attributing total power to the perpetrator, becoming preoccupied with the relationship to the perpetrator, including a preoccupation with revenge, idealization or paradoxical gratitude, seeking approval from the perpetrator, a sense of a special relationship with the perpetrator or acceptance of the perpetrator’s belief system or rationalizations.”  In other words, captives are at risk for developing something like Nietzsche’s “slave morality”, characterized by shame, submission, and appeasement towards the perpetrator.

Here’s John Darnielle talking about the thing:

“My stepfather wanted me to write Marxist poetry; if it didn’t serve the revolution, it wasn’t worthwhile.” I asked him what his mother thought, and he let out a sad laugh. “You have to understand the dynamic of the abused household. What you think doesn’t matter. Your thoughts are passing. They are positions you adopt to survive.”

The physical behaviors of shame (gaze aversion, shifty eyes, nervous smiles, downcast head, and slouched, forward-leaning postures)[3] are also common mammalian appeasement displays; subordinate monkeys and apes also have a “fear smile” and don’t meet the gaze of dominants.[4] It seems quite clear that the psychological problem of chronic shame as a result of abuse is a result of having to engage in prolonged appeasement behavior on pain of punishment.

A subordinate primate is not a healthy primate. Robert Sapolsky [5] has an overview article about how low-ranked primates are more stressed and more susceptible to disease in hierarchical species.

“When the hierarchy is stable in species where dominant individuals actively subjugate subordinates, it is the latter who are most socially stressed; this can particularly be the case in the most extreme example of a stable hierarchy, namely, one in which rank is hereditary. This reflects the high rates of physical and psychological harassment of subordinates, their relative lack of social control and predictability, their need to work harder to obtain food, and their lack of social outlets such as grooming or displacing aggression onto someone more subordinate.”

…The inability to physically avoid dominant individuals is associated with stress, and the ease of avoidance varies by ecosystem. The spatial constraints of a two-dimensional terrestrial habitat differ from those of a three-dimensional arboreal or aquatic setting, and living in an open grassland differs from living in a plain dense with bushes. As an extreme example, subordinate animals in captivity have many fewer means to evade dominant individuals than they would in a natural setting.

This coincides with the CPTSD model — social stress correlates with inability to escape.

The physiological results of social stress are cardiovascular and immune:

Prolonged stress adversely affects cardiovascular function, producing (i) hypertension and elevated heart rate; (ii) platelet aggregation and increased circulating levels of lipids and cholesterol, collectively promoting atherosclerotic plaque formation in injured blood vessels; (iii) decreased levels of protective high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and/or elevated levels of endangering low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol; and (iv) vasoconstriction of damaged coronary arteries…In general, mild to moderate transient stressors enhance immunity, particularly the first phase of the immune response, namely innate immunity. Later phases of the stress response are immunosuppressive, returning immune function to baseline. Should the later phase be prolonged by chronic stress, immunosuppression can be severe enough to compromise immune activation by infectious challenges (47, 48). In contrast, a failure of the later phase can increase the risk of the immune overactivity that constitutes autoimmunity.

Autoimmune disorders and weakened disease resistance are characteristic of people with PTSD as well.

Being a captive abuse victim is bad for one’s physical and mental health.  While abuse is “natural” (it appears frequently in nature), it is bad for flourishing in a quite direct and unmistakable way.  Individuals are not, in general, better off under conditions of captivity and abuse.

This abuse/dominance/submission/CPTSD thing is basically about dysfunctions in the second circuit in Leary’s eight-circuit model.  It’s the part of the mind that forms intuitions about social power relations.  Every social interaction between humans has some dominance/submission content; this is normal and probably inevitable, given our mammalian heritage. But Leary’s model is somewhat developmental — to be stuck in the mindset of dominance/submission means that you cannot reach the “higher” functions, such as intellectual thought or more mature moral reasoning.  Prolonged abuse can make people so stuck in submission that they cannot think.

Morality-As-Submission vs. Morality-As-Pattern

Most primates have something like abuse, and thus I’d believe all human societies have it. Patriarchal societies have a normative form of abuse: if the hierarchical family is established as standard, then husbands have certain rights of control and violence over wives, and parents have certain rights of control and violence over children.  In societies with land ownership and monarchs, there are also rights of control and violence of landowners over serfs and slaves, and of rulers over subjects.  Historically, higher-population agrarian societies (think Sumer or neolithic China) had larger and firmer hierarchies than earlier hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies, and probably worse treatment of women.  As Sapolsky notes, stable and particularly inherited hierarchies put greater stress on subordinates. (More about that in a later post.)

To give a stereotypical picture, think of patriarchal agrarian society as Blue in the Spiral Dynamics paradigm.  (This is horoscopey and ahistorical but it gives good archetypes.)  Blue culture means grain cultivation, pyramids and ziggurats, god-kings, temple sacrifices, and the first codes of law.

Not all humans are descended from agrarian-patriarchal cultures, but almost all Europeans and Asians are.

When you have stability, high population, and accumulation of resources, as intensive agriculture allows, you begin to have laws and authorities in a much stronger sense than tribal elders.  Your kings can be richer; your monuments can last longer.  I believe that notions of the absolute and the eternal in morality or religion might develop alongside the ability to have physically permanent objects and lasting power.

And, so, I suspect that this is the origin of the belief that to do right means to obey the father/king, and the worship of supreme gods modeled after a father or king.

To say morality is obedience is not merely to say that it is moral to obey.  Rather, we’re talking about divine command theory.  Goodness is identified with the will of the dominant individual. Inside this headspace, you ask “but what would morality even be if it weren’t a rock to crush me or a chain to bind me?”  It’s fear and submission melded with a sense of the rightness and absolute legitimacy of the dominator.

The “Song of the Sea” is considered by modern Biblical scholars to be the chronologically oldest part of the Bible, dating from the 15th to 5th centuries BC, and echoing praise songs to Mesopotamian gods and kings. God is here no abstract principle or sole creator; he is a “man of war” who defeats other peoples and their gods in battle.  He is to be worshiped not because he is good but because he is fearsome.

But philosophers, even in patriarchal societies, have often had some notion of a “good” which is less like a terrifying warlord and more like a natural law, a pattern in the universe, something to discern rather than someone to submit to.

The ancient Egyptians had ma’at and the Chinese had Heaven, as concepts of abstract justice which wicked earthly rulers could fall short of.  The ancient Greeks had logos, a faculty of reason or speech that allowed one to discern what was good.

Plato neatly disposes of divine command theory in the Euthyphro : if “good” is simply what the gods want, then what should one do if the gods disagree? Since in Greek mythology the gods plainly do disagree, the Good must be something that lies beyond the mere opinion of a powerful individual, human or divine.

As Ben Hoffman put it:

When morality is seen as rules society imposes on us to keep us in line, the superego or parent part is the internalized voice of moral admonition. Likewise, I suspect that in contemporary societies this often includes the internalized voice of the schoolteacher telling you how to do the assignment. This internalized voice of authority feels like an external force compelling you. People often feel tempted to rebel against their own superego or internalized parent.

By contrast, logos and sattva are not seen as internalized narratives – they are described as perceptive faculties. You see what’s right, by seeing the deep structure of reality. The same thing that lets you see the deep patterns in mathematics, lets you see the deep decision-theoretic symmetries underlying truly moral behavior.

This is why it matters so much that theologians such as Maimonides and Augustine were so insistent on the point that God has no body and anthropomorphic references in the Bible are metaphors, and why this point had to be repeated so often and seemed so difficult for their contemporaries to grasp. (Seriously, read The Guide to the Perplexed. It explains separately how each individual Biblical reference to a body part of God is a metaphor — it’s a truly incredible amount of repetition.)

If God has no body, this means that modern (roughly post-Roman-Empire) Jews and Christians worship something more like a principle of goodness than a warlord, even if God is frequently likened to a father or king.  It’s not “might makes right”, but “right makes right.”

The abuse-victim logic of morality-as-submission can have no concept that might might not make right.

But more “mature” ethical philosophies, even if they emerge from authoritarian societies — Christian, Jewish, Confucian, Classical Greek, to name a few that I’m familiar with — can be used as grounds to oppose tyranny and abuse, because they contain the concept of a pattern of justice that transcends the will of any particular man.

Once you can generalize, once you can see pattern, once you notice that humans disagree and kings can be toppled, you have the potential to escape the second-circuit, primate-level, dominant/submissive paradigm.  You can ask “what is right?” and not just “who’s on top?”

An Example of Morality-As-Submission: The Golden Calf

It is generally bad scholarship to read the literal text of the Bible as evidence for what contemporary Jews or Christians believe; that ignores thousands of years of interpretation.  But if you just look at the Bible without context, raw, you can get some kind of an unfiltered impression of the mindset of whoever wrote it — which is quite different from how moderns (religious or not) think, but which still influences us deeply.

So let’s look at Exodus 32:34.

The People of Israel, impatient with Moses taking so long on Mount Sinai, build a golden calf and worship it. Now God gets mad.

7 And the LORD spoke unto Moses: ‘Go, get thee down; for thy people, that thou broughtest up out of the land of Egypt, have dealt corruptly; 8 they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them; they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed unto it, and said: This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.’ 9 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people.

“Stiff-necked”, meaning stubborn. Meaning “you just do as you damn well please.”  Meaning “you have a will, you choose to do things besides obey me, and that is just galling.”  This is abuser/authoritarian logic: the abuser feels entitled to obedience and especially submission. To be stiff-necked is not to bow the neck.

10 Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of thee a great nation.’ 11 And Moses besought the LORD his God, and said: ‘LORD, why doth Thy wrath wax hot against Thy people, that Thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, saying: For evil did He bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from Thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against Thy people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Thy servants, to whom Thou didst swear by Thine own self, and saidst unto them: I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever.’ 14 And the LORD repented of the evil which He said He would do unto His people.

Moses pleads with God to remember his promises and not kill everyone. He even calls the plan of genocide “evil”!  And God, who is here not an implacable force of justice but out-of-control angry, calms down in response to the pleading and moderates his behavior.

But then Moses comes down the mountain, and he gets angry, and he slaughters, not everyone, but 3000 men.

27 And he [Moses] said unto them: ‘Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel: Put ye every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.’ 28 And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.


Notice how, if you’re at all familiar with abusive family dynamics, God is the primary abusive parent, and Moses is the less-abusive, appeasing parent, who tries to protect the children somewhat but still terrorizes them.

Now, God is going to make sure the Israelites know how grateful to be for his mercy and should beware lest he does anything worse:

1. And the LORD spoke unto Moses: ‘Depart, go up hence, thou and the people that thou hast brought up out of the land of Egypt, unto the land of which I swore unto Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying: Unto thy seed will I give it– 2. and I will send an angel before thee; and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite– 3. unto a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiffnecked people; lest I consume thee in the way.’ 4. And when the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned; and no man did put on him his ornaments.  5 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Say unto the children of Israel: Ye are a stiffnecked people; if I go up into the midst of thee for one moment, I shall consume thee; therefore now put off thy ornaments from thee, that I may know what to do unto thee.’

Note the mourning and the refusal to put on ornaments. You have to show contrition, you can’t relax and make merry, as long as the parent is angry. It’s a submission behavior. The whole house has to be thrown into gloom until the parent says your punishment is over.

Now Moses goes into the Tent of Meeting to pray, very humbly, for God’s forgiveness of the people.  And here, in this context, is where you find the famous Thirteen Attributes of God’s Mercy.

6. And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed: ‘The LORD, the LORD, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth;  7 keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation.’ 8. And Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped. 9. And he said: ‘If now I have found grace in Thy sight, O Lord, let the Lord, I pray Thee, go in the midst of us; for it is a stiffnecked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Thine inheritance.’

God is “long-suffering” because he doesn’t kill literally everyone, when he is begged not to.  This “mercy” is more like the “tolerance” that dominant primates display when they get “enough” appeasement behaviors from subordinates.  Of course, people have long taken this passage as an inspiration for real mercy and grace; but in context and without theological interpretation that is not what it looks like.

Now, there’s a long interval of the new tablets of the law being brought down, and instructions being given for the tabernacle and how to give sin-offerings. Eight days later, in Leviticus 10,  God’s explained how to give a sin-offering and Aaron and his sons are actually going to do it, to make atonement for their sins…

…and they do it WRONG.

1. And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. 2. And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. 3. Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron held his peace. 4. And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said unto them: ‘Draw near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp.’  5 So they drew near, and carried them in their tunics out of the camp, as Moses had said. 6 And Moses said unto Aaron, and unto Eleazar and unto Ithamar, his sons: ‘Let not the hair of your heads go loose, neither rend your clothes, that ye die not, and that He be not wroth with all the congregation; but let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which the LORD hath kindled. And ye shall not go out from the door of the tent of meeting, lest ye die; for the anointing oil of the LORD is upon you.’ And they did according to the word of Moses.

Not only does the appeasement ritual of the sin-offering have to be done, it has to be done exactly right, and if you make an error, the world will explode. And note  the form of the error — the priests take initiative, they light a fire that God didn’t specifically tell them to light.  “Did I tell you to light that?”  And now, since God is angry, nobody else is allowed to act upset about the punishment, lest they get in trouble too.

These are not abstract theological ideas that the authors got out of nowhere. These are things that happen in families.

Growing in Poisoned Soil

I don’t mean to make this an anti-religious rant, or imply that religious people systematically support domestic abuse and tyranny. It was, after all, the story of Exodus that inspired American slaves in their fight for freedom.

The point is that this pattern — abuser-logic and abuse-victim logic — is a recurrent feature in the moral intuitions of everyone in a culture with patriarchal roots.

Here we have punishment, not as a deterrent or as a natural consequence of wrong action, but as rage, the fury of an authority who didn’t get the proper “respect.”

Here we have appeasement of that rage interpreted as the virtue of “humility” or “atonement.”

Here we have an intuitive sense that even generic moral words like “should” or “ought” are blows; they are what a dominant individual forces upon a subordinate.

Look at Psalm 51.  This is a prayer of repentance; this is what David sings after he realizes that he was wrong to commit adultery and murder. Sensible things to repent of, no doubt. But the internal logic, though beautiful and emotionally resonant, is crazypants.

“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Wait, you didn’t do anything wrong when you were a fetus, we’re talking about what you did wrong just now.)

“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”  (Yes, guilt does create a desire for cleansing; but you’re expecting God to do the washing?  Only an external force can make you clean?)

“Hide Thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.”  (Um, I’m pretty sure your victim is still dead.)

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.” (AAAAAAAAAAA.)

Even legitimate guilt for serious wrongdoing gets conflated with submission and “broken-spiritedness” and pleading for mercy and an intuition of innate taintedness.  This is how morality works when you process it through the second circuit, through the native mammalian intuitions around dominance/submission.

It’s natural, it’s human, it’s easy to empathize with — and it’s quite insane.

It’s also, I think, related to problems specific to women.

If women are traditionally subordinate in your society — and forty years of women’s lib is nowhere near enough to overcome thousands of years of tradition — then women will disproportionately suffer domestic abuse, and even those who don’t will still inherit the kinds of intuitions that captives always do.

A “good girl” is obedient, “innocent” (i.e. lacking in experience, especially sexual experience), and never takes initiative, because initiative can get you in trouble. A “good girl” internalizes that to be “good” is simply to submit and to appease and please.

How can you possibly eliminate those dysfunctions until you attack their roots?

Women have higher rates of depression and anxiety than men. Girl toddlers also have higher rates of shame in response to failure than boy toddlers [6].  Women also have a significantly lower salivary cortisol response to social stress than men.[7] Blunted cortisol response to stress is what you see in PTSD, CFS, and atypical depression, which are all more common in women than men; it occurs more in low-status individuals than high-status ones.[8][9] The psychological and physiological problems most specific to women are also the illnesses associated with low social status and chronic shame.

If we have a society that runs on shame and appeasement, especially for women, then women will be hurt.  Everything we do and think today, including modern liberalism, is built on a base that includes granting legitimacy to abusive power.  I don’t mean this in the sense of “everything is tainted, you must see the world through mud-colored glasses”, but in the sense that this is where our inheritance comes from, these influences are still visible, this is the soil we grew from.

It’s not trivial to break away and create alternatives. People do.  Every concept of goodness-as-pattern or of universal justice is an alternative to abuse-logic, which is always personal and emotional.  But it’s hard to break away completely.


[1]McGuire, Michael T., M. J. Raleigh, and C. Johnson. “Social dominance in adult male vervet monkeys: Behavior-biochemical relationships.” Information (International Social Science Council) 22.2 (1983): 311-328.

[2]Gilbert, Paul, and Michael T. McGuire. “Shame, status, and social roles: Psychobiology and evolution.” (1998).

[3]Keltner, Dacher. “Signs of appeasement: Evidence for the distinct displays of embarrassment, amusement, and shame.” Journal of personality and social psychology 68.3 (1995): 441.

[4]Leary, Mark R., and Robin M. Kowalski. Social anxiety. Guilford Press, 1997.

[5]Sapolsky, Robert M. “The influence of social hierarchy on primate health.” Science 308.5722 (2005): 648-652.

[6]Lewis, Michael, Steven M. Alessandri, and Margaret W. Sullivan. “Differences in shame and pride as a function of children’s gender and task difficulty.” Child development 63.3 (1992): 630-638.

[7]Kirschbaum, Clemens, Stefan Wüst, and Dirk Hellhammer. “Consistent sex differences in cortisol responses to psychological stress.” Psychosomatic Medicine 54.6 (1992): 648-657.

[8]Gruenewald, Tara L., Margaret E. Kemeny, and Najib Aziz. “Subjective social status moderates cortisol responses to social threat.” Brain, behavior, and immunity 20.4 (2006): 410-419.

[9]”Threat, Social-Evaluative, and Self-Conscious Emotion.”Miller & Tangney, 1994