The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image

October 31, 1998

by Leonard Shlain

Reviewed October 1998

You may know a little about your brain’s hemispheres. Maybe you’ve heard that a “right-brained” person is more creative, and a “left-brained” person is good at math. Or is it the other way around?

Leonard Shlain, a surgeon, can tell you about right brain and left brain functions—and more. In his new book, he attempts to convince the reader that all human undertaking can be explained by the predominance of either lobe. Right-brain values, typically female, include being, feeling, intuition, images, form, and all-at-once apprehension of reality. Left-brain values, typically male, include doing, speech, abstraction, numeracy, and linear apprehension.

With these values for keys, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess aligns major human movements with either the left brain or the right brain. Shlain begins with preliterate societies, showing us what life was like before alphabet literacy, and, coincidentally or not, before the demise of Goddess religions, the demotion of images, the rise of monotheism, and Rule by Law. He proposes that the introduction of the alphabet, and later the printing press, caused the overdevelopment of the left brain as alphabet literacy spread, and thus profoundly changed our societies and religions, promoting left-brain values at the expense of right-brain ones.

The book’s title aptly describes history under Shlain’s thesis—and you do not forget it is a thesis, with its comically academic “I submit”s and “I propose”s—until the 20th century. History until 1900 and beyond is a protracted battle for primacy between images and words. Shlain does, he admits, favor the right-brain underdog, probably because he attributes cruelty (tortures, wars, and genocides) to left-brain causes like ideology or religion. The 20th century, according to Shlain, brought a new darkness and uncertainty that remind us of how much we don’t know, and of the catastrophic repercussions of our escalating violence.

We are striking a balance, Shlain concludes optimistically, aided by the advent of photography, television, movies, and computers. These new media increase the prevalence of images and promote the right-brain values once again. The duality of the brain is perceived to be cooperative, not adversarial. Shlain’s whirlwind tour of history winds down, leaving you rethinking your own values and questioning what you’ve been told about history.

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