Today I am reposting a message from a group I belong concerned with making a great transition to a world that works. The current topic is big history and the great transition. The post is from Riane Eisler for whose work I have great respect. She writes that modern cultures are largely systems of domination, which is hardly arguably, and that “partnership systems” should replace them. Well written and grounded. I see this as a call for caring, which is why I posted it here. Her case could be made much more timely and likely to happen if she was aware of the divided-brain-model and its power. In any case here it is. It is long but well worth reading.

ps. I know I have been absent from this blog for a while. One reason for neglecting it is that I have virtually no sense as to whether what I spent a lot of time putting together has any impact at all. I can count the number of comments over the past year or so on the fingers on one hand. I do not need long and complicated responses. Even just “Thanks” would let me know if people are coming to this website and taking something away with them.


Reclaiming Our Past and Future
Riane Eisler

A new story about our past is fundamental to building a better future. Key to this is an interdisciplinary analysis of human nature and human cultural possibilities. This piece starts with the first and then focuses on the second.

Findings—largely overlooked—from the natural and social sciences debunk the popular story that we are hard-wired for selfishness, war, rape, and greed. Neuroscience shows that our brain circuits, and therefore how we think, feel, and act – including how we vote—are strongly shaped by our environments, which for humans are primarily our surrounding cultures as mediated by families, education, religion, politics, and economics. Our large-brained species is flexible: we are equipped for destructiveness and creativity, rote conformity and independence, cruelty and caring. Which capacities are expressed, or inhibited, largely depends on the degree to which a culture or sub-culture orients to either end of the partnership-domination social scale. Domination systems produce high levels of stress and fear—from stressful early family experiences to the artificial creation of economic scarcity.  Partnership environments enhance the expression of the capacities needed for a more humane and sustainable future: our human capacities for caring, consciousness, and creativity. [1]

The first step is going beyond familiar social categories—ancient/modern, right/left, religious/secular, Eastern/Western, Southern/Northern, industrial/pre- or post- industrial. There have been authoritarian, violent, unjust societies in every conventional category, so none tells us how to build a better future. Moreover, these categories ignore or marginalize parent-child and gender relations—even though neuroscience shows that early experiences and observations profoundly affect how our brains develop, and therefore what people consider normal and moral.

The partnership system and the domination system show the key role these foundational human relations play in whether a society is more just or unjust, more peaceful or violent, protects human rights or considers chronic human rights violations normal and moral.

Authoritarian, repressive, violent societies—whether old, like Assyria, Imperial China, or the European Middle Ages, or modern, like Hitler’s rightist Germany or Stalin’s leftist former USSR, or religious like Khomeini’s Iran, the Taliban, and the U.S. “rightist-fundamentalist alliance”—share the domination system’s configuration.

First, all institutions, from the family to religion, economics, and politics, have authoritarian, top-down structures. Second, the male human form is ranked over the female form, with a gendered system of values in which anything associated with masculinity in domination systems (e.g., conquest, winning, violence) is superior to the stereotypically feminine (e.g., nonviolence, caring, caregiving). Third, abuse and violence are built into domination systems (from child-and-wife-beating to aggressive warfare, from torture and witch-burnings to pogroms and lynchings)—as required to maintain in-group versus out-group thinking and rigid top-down rankings of man over man, man over woman, race over race, religion over religion, and nation over nation. [2]

Societies orienting to the partnership system’s configuration also transcend familiar categories. They can be technologically undeveloped foraging societies going back millennia, as shown by anthropologist Douglas Fry and others; egalitarian prehistoric farming cultures like Catal Huyuk, where archeology shows no signs of destruction though warfare for 1000 years or inequality between women and men; technologically advanced “high civilizations” like Minoan Crete, with its generally high living standard and no signs of warfare between the island’s city-states, where women played leading roles; or modern societies like Finland and Norway. [3]

Partnership-oriented societies have the following configuration. First, both families and tribes or nations are more democratic and egalitarian. There are still parents, teachers, managers, and leaders, but they have hierarchies of actualization where accountability, respect, and benefits flow both ways, rather than just from the bottom up, and power is empowering, rather than disempowering, as in hierarchies of domination. Second, the female and male forms of humanity are equally valued, and qualities like nonviolence and care are valued in women, men, and social and economic policy. Third, while there is some abuse and violence, these do not have to be built into institutions as they are not required to maintain rankings of domination.

Over the last centuries modern progressive social movements have challenged entrenched traditions of domination—from the eighteenth-century “rights of man” movement challenging the “divinely ordained” right of kings to rule, the nineteenth- and twentieth-century abolitionist, civil rights, and anti-colonial movements challenging the “divinely ordained” right of a “superior” race to rule over “inferior” ones, and the feminist movement challenging the “divinely ordained” right of men to rule women and children in the “castles” of their homes, to today’s environmental movement, challenging the once-hallowed conquest and domination of nature.

Yet our forward movement has not been linear but upward with dips: fiercely resisted every inch of the way and punctuated by global regressions to domination. A major reason for these regressions is that most progressive movements have only focused on dismantling the top of the domination pyramid: politics and economics as conventionally defined. By contrast, those pushing us back to strong-man rule, violence, and in-group vs. out-group scapegoating invest enormous resources in maintaining or reinstating domination in four interconnected cornerstones for either partnership- or domination-oriented systems.

These cornerstones are family and childhood relations (e.g., appropriating family, values, and morality), gender roles and relations (e.g., demonizing gender role fluidity), economics (e.g., promoting trickle-down economics and devaluing caring, which they code “feminine”), and narratives and language that justify top-down control (e.g., that fathers are “masters of the house”).

Putin, who barbarically invaded Ukraine, in 2018, reduced the legal penalty for family violence, so in his Russia the consequences for hurting or killing a stranger exceed those for killing or hurting a family member. He and other “strongmen” recognize the connection between an authoritarian, male-dominated, punitive family that uses violence for control and his authoritarian, male-dominated, violently punitive state.

In sum, those pushing us back globally pay particular attention to maintaining or reinstating traditions of domination in our family relations, gender relations, economics, and stories/language. Progressives need a whole-systems agenda based on a partnership-oriented narrative of our past, present, and the possibilities for our future that no longer marginalizes the majority of humanity – women and children – to counter regressions to domination worldwide and build a more equitable, sustainable, and caring socio-economic partnership system.

 Selected References:
[1] Eisler, Riane and Fry, Douglas. Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future (Oxford University Press, 2019).
[2] Eisler, Riane. The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics (Berrett-Kohler, 2007); Eisler, Riane. The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. (Harper Collins, 1987, 2017).
[3] Fry, Douglas, editor. War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views.(Oxford University Press, 2013); Hodder, Ian. “Women and Men at Catalhoyuk.” Scientific American, January, 2004: pp. 77- 83.



4 Replies to “Partners or Dominators”

  1. Thanks so much for posting this. I agree that’s it’s well written: her analysis generates several possibilities for action. I’m interested, if you have time, on your views of how the divided brain model would make her case more timely and likely to happen.

    Also, I’m curious if your “big history” group has considered the work of economic anthropologist Jason Hickel, whose book “The Divide”, while polemical in tone, has some very sound research to support his thesis.
    Thanks again 🙏

  2. Thank you, John! I am a professor of sustainability studies and have been thinking about practices to integrate McGilchrist’s work within my teaching practice. I just discovered your most recent book and article “Flourishing: Designing a Brave New World.” Let me know if you have additional thoughts on education for flourishing with the right brain in mind. I appreciate your work!

  3. I was just catching up on your work. So glad to see you’re still offering your invaluable wisdom

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