What percentage of your ancestors were men?
No, it’s not 50 percent, as I’ll explain shortly. But first let me credit the source, Roy F. Baumeister, who answered that question – and a lot of other ones – in an address on Friday at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in San Francisco. I recommend reading the whole speech: “Is There Anything Good About Men?”
As you might expect, he did find something good to say about men, but the speech wasn’t an apologia for the gender, or a whine about the abuse heaped on men. Rather, it was a shrewd and provocative look at the motivational differences between men and women – and at some of the topics (like the gender imbalance on science faculties) that got Larry Summers in so much trouble at Harvard. Dr. Baumeister, a prominent social psychologist who teaches at Florida State University, began by asking gender warriors to go home.
“I’m certainly not denying that culture has exploited women,” he said. “But rather than seeing culture as patriarchy, which is to say a conspiracy by men to exploit women, I think it’s more accurate to understand culture (e.g., a country, a religion) as an abstract system that competes against rival systems — and that uses both men and women, often in different ways, to advance its cause.”
The “single most underappreciated fact about gender,” he said, is the ratio of our male to female ancestors. While it’s true that about half of all the people who ever lived were men, the typical male was much more likely than the typical woman to die without reproducing. Citing recent DNA research, Dr. Baumeister explained that today’s human population is descended from twice as many women as men. Maybe 80 percent of women reproduced, whereas only 40 percent of men did.
“It would be shocking if these vastly different reproductive odds for men and women failed to produce some personality differences,” he said, and continued:
For women throughout history (and prehistory), the odds of reproducing have been pretty good. Later in this talk we will ponder things like, why was it so rare for a hundred women to get together and build a ship and sail off to explore unknown regions, whereas men have fairly regularly done such things? But taking chances like that would be stupid, from the perspective of a biological organism seeking to reproduce. They might drown or be killed by savages or catch a disease. For women, the optimal thing to do is go along with the crowd, be nice, play it safe. The odds are good that men will come along and offer sex and you’ll be able to have babies. All that matters is choosing the best offer. We’re descended from women who played it safe.
For men, the outlook was radically different. If you go along with the crowd and play it safe, the odds are you won’t have children. Most men who ever lived did not have descendants who are alive today. Their lines were dead ends. Hence it was necessary to take chances, try new things, be creative, explore other possibilities.
The second big motivational difference between the genders, he went on, involves the kind of social relationships sought by each sex. While other researcher have argued that women are more “social” than men – more helpful and less aggressive towards others — Dr. Baumeister argued that women can be plenty aggressive in the relationships that matter most to them, which are intimate relationships. Men are more aggressive when it comes to dealing with strangers, because they’re more interested than women are in a wider network of shallow relationships.
“We shouldn’t automatically see men as second-class human beings simply because they specialize in the less important, less satisfying kind of relationship,” he said. Men are social, too, he said, just in a different way, with more focus on larger groups: “If you make a list of activities that are done in large groups, you are likely to have a list of things that men do and enjoy more than women: team sports, politics, large corporations, economic networks, and so forth.”
There’s lots more in the speech, but I’ll leave you with Dr. Baumeister’s conclusion summarizing his argument:
A few lucky men are at the top of society and enjoy the culture’s best rewards. Others, less fortunate, have their lives chewed up by it. Culture uses both men and women, but most cultures use them in somewhat different ways. Most cultures see individual men as more expendable than individual women, and this difference is probably based on nature, in whose reproductive competition some men are the big losers and other men are the biggest winners. Hence it uses men for the many risky jobs it has.
Men go to extremes more than women, and this fits in well with culture using them to try out lots of different things, rewarding the winners and crushing the losers.
Culture is not about men against women. By and large, cultural progress emerged from groups of men working with and against other men. While women concentrated on the close relationships that enabled the species to survive, men created the bigger networks of shallow relationships, less necessary for survival but eventually enabling culture to flourish. The gradual creation of wealth, knowledge, and power in the men’s sphere was the source of gender inequality. Men created the big social structures that comprise society, and men still are mainly responsible for this, even though we now see that women can perform perfectly well in these large systems.
What seems to have worked best for cultures is to play off the men against each other, competing for respect and other rewards that end up distributed very unequally. Men have to prove themselves by producing things the society values. They have to prevail over rivals and enemies in cultural competitions, which is probably why they aren’t as lovable as women.
The essence of how culture uses men depends on a basic social insecurity. This insecurity is in fact social, existential, and biological. Built into the male role is the danger of not being good enough to be accepted and respected and even the danger of not being able to do well enough to create offspring.
The basic social insecurity of manhood is stressful for the men, and it is hardly surprising that so many men crack up or do evil or heroic things or die younger than women. But that insecurity is useful and productive for the culture, the system.
Again, I’m not saying it’s right, or fair, or proper. But it has worked. The cultures that have succeeded have used this formula, and that is one reason that they have succeeded instead of their rivals.