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Sex, Time and Power: How Women's Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution Hardcover – August 18, 2003

4.1 out of 5 stars 79 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

This book sets out to explore why and when people evolved so far away from other mammals in several key ways, all of which Dr. Shlain ties to the biological differences between men and women. As in his excellent prior work The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (which holds that there are links between the ascendancy of patriarchy and written language and the descent of matriarchal societies and goddess-based religions), some of the concepts proposed in this book might seem a bit of a stretch. And they are—whether or not they turn out to be factual. Shlain contends, for instance, that women essentially invented the concept of time due to their experience of menses. Whatever conclusions the reader comes to, the author exposes the underlying gender biases in so many scientific assumptions; the result is one of those books that cannot help but alter one's perceptions. A consistently engaging writer, Shlain traces the course of his own evolving ideas with what might be called a didactic wit: bold statements are first writ large, then Dr. Shlain reveals how he came upon them, frequently with colorful anecdotes that show these are questions he's been wrestling with for many years. It's difficult to tell whether this fascinating thinker will be viewed as the next Darwin or as a crank, but there's no denying this is an audacious work in the realm of evolutionary biology. --Mike McGonigal

From Booklist

Shlain makes brilliant use of his medical expertise in his highly original and intellectually stimulating inquiry into human sexuality and its role in the shaping of civilization that he launched so boldly in The Alphabet versus the Goddess (1998). Here he takes an evolutionary approach to solving the conundrums of misogyny and patriarchy, guiding his curious, perhaps skeptical, certainly riveted readers through well-grounded and intriguing speculations about the purpose of such seemingly impractical, even dangerous traits as bipedalism, menstruation, the perils of childbirth, and the helplessness of infants. Shlain's reflections on human nutrition and women's greater need for iron lead to a fascinating theory about courtship and hunting, which, in turn, generates the hypothesis that the evolution of language was sparked by the delicacy of sexual negotiation. And menses, this daring thinker believes, may well be the source of our perception of time and our unique ability to conceive of and plan for the future. Lucid and compelling, Shlain asks startling and crucial questions about human nature and presents truly imaginative and mind-stretching answers. Donna Seaman
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; First Edition edition (August 18, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670032336
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670032334
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (79 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #522,720 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
For 25 years, "A Pattern Language" (C. Alexander, et al) has occupied first place in my "Most Human Wisdom In a Book Cover" category. Leonard Shlain's "Sex, Time, and Power" has just replaced it. Surely, even amongst the well educated, the relationship between men and women holds more misunderstanding than any other human endeavor. Dr. Shlain's insightful study sheds more light into this thorny area than the sum of all other similar books I have read. Although the writing style is personal and humerous, this book is a relatively slow read due to the sheer density of ideas presented and quantity of supporting documentation supplied. Every time I loan out this book, it proves very difficult to get back. It is a slooow read that borrowers do not want to relinquish until they have finished. After a few weeks rumination time, I find them asking me if the book is available again. Get your own copy! Anyone trying to make sense of "The Urge to Merge" will find themselves returning to this fertile well of ideas again and again.
As a related aside, attending a book store talk given by Dr. Shlain, I found him to be every bit an excellent speaker as he is an excellent writer. If given the chance to hear him speak, don't miss it!
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Format: Hardcover
Many books have been written regarding relationships between men and women. Some even suggest that we are of different species and it is part of a cosmic joke that we are attracted to and must rely upon one another.
If this is the kind of book you are attracted to, you will be quite disappointed in this work by talented author Leonard Shlain. As in his previous two books "Art and Physics" and "The Alphabet Vs The Goddess" Shlain presents an observation that has troubled him. After a thorough search of the literature fails to satisfy his curiosity, some kind of internal dialectic occurs and a well reasoned "what if" process is presented.
The stimulus for this story started when Shlain, as a young medical student, could not accept the casual dismissal of his question "Why is the normal hemoglobin for women less than for men?" All humans rely on oxygen dependent metabolic processes. Women require just as much oxygen carrying, iron based, hemoglobin as men. Why would nature create women to lose this essential product every month in her menses, while pregnant and also in childbirth?
That question is the basis for a well reasoned work that presents possible answers that should stimulate much further discussion and interest. Shlain, also being an exceptional educator, presents pertinent human physiology, anatomy and psychology in an understandable and yet non-patronizing manner.
While this book reads like an entertaining `who done it' novel: the reward is not only a provocative explanation but a worth while educational process.
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Format: Hardcover
I bought this book because I had immensely enjoyed Matt Ridley's book on sexuality and evolution, The Red Queen. Whereas Ridley goes into excruciating detail about how certain evolutionary principles have affected a wide range of species, Shlain concentrates entirely on human evolution.

In the initial chapters, Shlain provides extensive explanations of the medical aspects of sex and childbirth. Shlain knows how to make these details interesting by highlighting their relevance. For example, he explains how the disproportionately large head of the human fetus endangered the lives of prehistoric women, and why the female tendency to lose iron was such a significant issue in ancient times. And these points are only the beginning. The first few chapters contain a dozen or so similar insights.

After Shlain provides the requisite background information, the book takes a more speculative turn. For the sake of argument, women are treated as a separate species, which Shlain calls gynosapiens. Because of certain evolutionary factors, gynosapiens were the first to become aware of time and mortality. In particular, sex was an act which carried potentially fatal implications for prehistoric women. Because the stakes were so high, gynosapiens took control of their own sexuality; they could not afford to be as carefree as men.

The subsequent evolution of male behavior (and society as a whole) is therefore explained in terms of male efforts to negotiate sexual relationships with women. According to Shlain, language itself evolved because the glibber male stood a better chance of succeeding with females. Most men (and women, I suspect) would agree that a significant portion of contemporary male behavior is motivated by sexual ambition.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
There are so many things wrong with this book it's hard to know where to begin.

I suppose I should admit that the first part of the book was interesting and offered some promising questions. This makes up perhaps the first 10 or so chapters of the book. After this, however, the book is taken in an unimaginative, uninteresting, tedious, inaccurate, distorted, and pretentious direction that was very infuriating to wade through and which showed the author's bias in monogamy, gender stereotypes, and biologic essentialism.

The book begins by producing a few premises which will be misused later in the book. These are that women developed a sense of time before men due to their menstruation and its connection with the lunar cycle and that this sense of time was produced to allow women to control their sexuality as a response to the high mortality of pregnancy. Menstruation, however, produces a dependence upon men for meat due to the iron loss associated with it. This experience of time then leads men to become better hunters with foresight, produces language as a way for men and women to negotiate mating terms, and produces a sense of mortality and paternity which is what eventually leads men to produce religion, art, and systems that control the sexuality of women.

I am willing to give Shlain all of these except for paternity which he does not convincingly show could have been an obvious intellectual realization nor a necessary one in hunter-gatherer societies.

Now on to the problems with the way he uses all this.

1. He does not seem to clarify what epoch of time he is describing nor seems to care.
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