Sunday, September 09, 2007

What are men good for?

Lets face it, the public image of the male sex has seen better days. Now that women have broken down the barriers of entry into the male dominated spheres of business, politics and the professions, the question of why men are necessary for a functional society becomes less rhetorical every day.

Roy Baumeister asks the question, and delivers a very convincing answer. Men are the change agents of society. The risk takers, the innovators. With no apologies to the feminist sensibility, he makes the daring claim that men are responsible for culture. The following passage, summarizing his essay, makes a very convincing, if politically incorrect, assessment of the male legacy for human civilization:
To summarize my main points: 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.


The more important question is: will men continue to play this same role as the drivers of culture, or is that a role that women will be able to take over from men? Are separate roles for men and women now obsolete?

17 Comments:

Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Hawaiian society was sexually egalitarian among the chiefs, who were the ones who had the social capital to takes risks; and it was women, not men, who took the risks.

So, as a general proposition, I would judge: not proven.

Since in most societies, women were denied the social capital that would have allowed them to take risks, it seems a pretty big step to say, they didn't want to take risks. Who knows?

Among the enviros today, who are happy to take the most extreme risks with the culture, women seem as prominent as men.

September 09, 2007 8:18 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

If Baumeister's thesis is correct, then I predict that men will be more needed than ever since I think that technology will require that culture evolve ever more quickly.

harry,
Environmentalism is a "nurturing" sort of concept so would fit women's stereotypical role quite well. If anything, it could be said that men are taking more of a risk by not addressing global warming.

September 09, 2007 10:04 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Bad culture. Bad, mean culture.

So men created and drove culture but then ungrateful, demanding culture turned around and used men and made them so insecure they pick fights and drink and crack up? Man, what's a fellow to do?

Sound like the germ of a good sci-fi flic, Duck. Let's make one and call the culture "Hal".

September 10, 2007 2:53 AM  
Blogger Ali said...

There will probably be more women taking on the roles that men used to do exclusively but they're wired too differently for there ever to be a huge change.

September 10, 2007 3:50 AM  
Blogger erp said...

"What are men good for?" Hmmm, let me think.

September 10, 2007 3:53 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter,
We are definitely living in a sci-fi story nowadays.

But you misinterpret what Baumeister says. It's somewhat anthropocentric to say that the culture does this to men. It's better to say that men acting according to their competitive instincts make culutre. Or are culture.

Nowadays the "getting chewed up" part merely means that the loser has to settle for a lower paying, lower prestige job and a "below average" mate. At least in America that is. It has never been better for beta males than it is today in the US.

Now if you live in Asia, beta status means no mate and a life that makes suicide bombing seem like a good career move.

September 10, 2007 4:46 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

40 years ago, students of introductory anthropology at the less self-consciou provincial colleges used to be assigned a book (I thought by Clifford Geertz, but I cannot place the title) that asked why men have been socially dominant.

I forget what his explanation was, but it wasn't the obvious one: men can beat women up.

This, in turn, relates to pronounced sexual dimorphism that was established among the apes long before culture.

Why human men beat up females -- not a behavior very common among other dimorphic species -- is a mystery to me. Perhaps that part of culture was predetermined by physiology, although if so, why not among elephant seals?

Anyhow, whatever the reason, men and women never did start out flatfooted. There undoubtedly are sexual differences of style and substance, but it does not follow that, if women had had the same latitude as men, they would not have been as 'adverturous,' though perhaps in different directions.

September 10, 2007 10:16 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

...the loser has to settle for a lower paying, lower prestige job and a "below average" mate.

I'm not sure that it goes even that far. Perhaps it's just a lower prestige job and a not-obviously-outstanding mate.

Being a college professor is highly prestigious, but with the exception of the top-tier schools, the average prof. makes less than $ 60,000. A good mechanic, plumber, or truck driver can make that, (especially if they're union), although the average pay for those jobs is significantly lower.

And since there are many desirable women, and Alpha males in modern society can only have one or two at a time, there are many Beta males with "trophy" mates.

September 11, 2007 4:49 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Perhaps it's not so much that men could beat up women, but that they could protect them and their babies, so men dominated women and alpha males dominated them both. As life got more organized, physical strength became less important and alpha males were the smartest, not necessarily the strongest. Now that women can take of themselves and their children, quién sabe how the future will shape up for males, alpha to omega.

I would hope that men and women could function as equal partners with neither claiming superiority over the other.

September 11, 2007 7:35 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

...quién sabe how the future will shape up for males...

Someone's going to explore and settle the rest of the solar system, and eventually the stars.

There will be women in the vanguard, but the overwhelming majority will be male.

September 11, 2007 10:56 AM  
Blogger erp said...

As long as the space trotters are chosen for ability, not diversity, I'll drink to that.

September 11, 2007 11:37 AM  
Blogger Ali said...

I think that will be a job left to our future robot overlords.

September 12, 2007 4:39 AM  
Blogger erp said...

It may be left to robots to explore space, but I hope it will be as our emissaries, not overlords.

September 12, 2007 7:19 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Poor modern man, beaten up so terribly by Mr. Culture. Nothing to do but go out and colonize the solar system. But why do I have this sneaking suspicion he will soon be complaining that the solar system doesn't appreciate him any better?

But hey, stop the presses. Duck, I may be forgetting my place, but we haven't had a really good just-so story for ages. I know you collect them, so here is todays's:


Does your mind go blank in the spotlight? Blame biology, experts say

What's really going on when we get sweaty-palmed and sick to our stomachs?

Mary Fensholt, a consultant and author of "The Francis Effect: The Real Reason You Hate Public Speaking and How to Get Over It," puts it succinctly: "The fear of public speaking or performing is more than anything a fear of being eaten."

Building on the theories of sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, Fensholt argues that historically, being intently scrutinized and singled out was a prelude to being eaten by a predator, so human ancestors evolved a strong fear response against setting themselves apart from the protection of the group.


Is that cool or what? OK, thanks. Now let's get back to all those chewed up men.

September 12, 2007 10:58 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

So if you enjoy public speaking (as I do), you have a death wish?

September 13, 2007 1:45 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

And if you are in the audience, does the speech make you feel hungry?

September 13, 2007 2:37 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Mmmmmm! Toastmasters!

September 13, 2007 9:41 AM  

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