Is There Anything Good About Men? And Other Tricky Questions
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.
UPDATE, Noon Tuesday: Before anyone else posts a comment insisting that it’s mathematically impossible for any individual to have an unequal number of male and female ancestors, consider the following Edenic scenario. There are two women (Ginger and Mary Ann) and two men (Gilligan and the Professor) on a deserted island. Both women spurn Gilligan and have a child with the Professor. Ginger has a boy named Gino; Mary Ann has a girl named Maria. When they grow up, Gino and Maria have a child. This child will have three female ancestors (Maria, Ginger and Mary Ann) but only two male ancestors (Gino and the Professor).
If you think this is a bad example because it involves a half-brother marrying a half-sister, suppose that just as Gino and Maria come of age, they discover another clan living on the remote East Side side of the island. East meets West, and Gino and Maria each marries an East Sider. But their children will still have fewer male than female ancestors in the West Side portion of their family tree. And if the East Siders have a similar social structure — one alpha male grandfather who impregnated all the women on the East Side — then the children of Gino and Maria will have fewer male ancestors in both sides of their lineage.
“Is There Anything Good About Men?” Roy Baumeister asked the American Psychological Association, and he came up with a few suggestions. My post about the speech generated lots of comments and questions — and, I was glad to see, not too many knee-jerk denunciations from readers angry to see anyone suggest that gender differences aren’t due simply to oppression by patriarchal males. Dr. Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University, told me he was glad to see such a stimulating discussion, and he’s written a response to the readers. So has has one of the researchers he was citing, Jason Wilder, a biologist at Williams College.
Let’s start with an assertion in the speech that troubled many readers: we have twice as many female ancestors as male ancestors. Dr. Baumeister called it the “single most underappreciated fact about gender.” Critics responded that it couldn’t be true because every child has a father and a mother. Some readers acknowledged that we might collectively have fewer male ancestors than female ancestors, but they insisted that any individual must have an equal number of males and females in his family tree. And a lot of readers demanded to see the evidence for the assertion.
Rest assured that neither Dr. Baumeister nor I believes in virgin birth. It does indeed take two to tango. But we still have more female ancestors. Before getting to Dr. Baumeister’s explanation, let’s hear from Jason Wilder, a biologist at Williams College who came up with some of the genetic evidence cited by Dr. Baumeister. (You can read a paper by Dr. Wilder here.) And here’s Dr. Wilder’s response to the comments by disbelieving Lab readers:
I’ve run into all sorts of problems when explaining our finding that the breeding sex ratio is skewed in favor of women. (The most common response: “More women have children than men? Duh, of course.”) I’ll explain very briefly the methodology of our study and how we interpret the results.
In a nutshell, we examined the amount of genetic variability on the Y chromosome (which is inherited by males solely from fathers) and mitochondrial DNA (inherited in both sexes solely from the mother). According to population genetic theory, the amount of variation observed among any set of chromosomes surveyed in a population is proportional to two factors, the rate of mutation and the size of the population (in terms of numbers of reproducing individuals). If we factor out differences in the rate of mutation, then any leftover difference in the amount of variation between two samples of chromosomes should be due to differences in the sizes of the populations from which they are sampled. Applying this method, we were able to estimate the relative size of the female and male human populations (from mitochondrial and Y chromosome variation, respectively). We found that the breeding sex ratio is about two females per male.
On average (and over evolutionary time), any given human female has been more likely to reproduce than any given male. Said another way, males have had a higher variance in reproductive success than females. As a consequence, more different females have contributed to the modern gene pool than males. Rather spectacular examples of this phenomenon have been inferred from historical times using genetic data. Asian conquerors (such as Genghis Khan and Giocangga) and their male relatives appear to have made a vastly disproportionate contribution to modern Asian populations. Niall of the Nine Hostages seems to have had a similar effect on the gene pool of the British Isles. These types of events, where one person (or set of related individuals) experiences tremendous reproductive success, can have an effect on the gene pool that lasts for many generations. On the other side of the equation, we have to infer that there are many more males than females who do not successfully reproduce at all.
So what does this mean for the number of males and females in any individual’s family tree? “I would argue,” Dr. Wilder replied, “that it is more likely that every individual has a greater number of unique female than male ancestors. I suspect that the trouble is in convincing people that their family trees do not continually bifurcate back in time. Ultimately the constraints of an historical breeding population of finite size causes reticulations in the tree. These reticulations will more often involve male than female ancestors.”
Now let’s hear from Dr. Baumeister on the questions over our ancestry:
Yes, each baby has one mother and one father, but it is nonetheless possible for combined ancestors to include more females than males. Here is a simple example. Suppose an island contains two men, Bob and James, and two women, Sally and Maria. Bob is rich and charming, while James is poor and uncouth, so both women marry Bob. James remains celibate. Soon, Sally gives birth to Doug, and Maria gives birth to Linda. Count the ancestors so far. Doug’s parents (Bob and Sally) are 50% female. Linda’s parents (Bob and Maria) are also 50% female. But added together, their parents are 67% female (Bob, Sally, and Maria).
Next, suppose Doug marries Linda and they have a baby named Max. Max himself now has more female than male ancestors: Linda, Doug, Bob, Sally, and Maria. Thus, it is possible even for one person to have a family tree that is not 50-50. This is true even though we started with equal numbers of males and females (but poor James was a dead end) and though each child has one mother and one father.
In actual life, incest taboos might have prevented Linda from marrying her half-brother, but if a couple generations had intervened, there would have been no objection. We have more female than male ancestors because of some men having multiple mates (and other men having none) and because of some mating partners having the same male ancestor.
Some of you wrote to ask for sources to look up. There was a fair amount of coverage in the popular media back around September 20, 2004 (e.g., “Ancient man spread the love around”), and you can still find those stories online or elsewhere. They explain the basic findings reasonably well. In contrast, the primary sources are quite technical to read. Look for works by Jason Wilder as first author (Nature Genetics, October 2004; Molecular Biology and Evolution, 2004) and a somewhat more accessible commentary by Mark Shriver in the European Journal of Human Genetics (2005). None of them really treats the psychological implications of the difference, focusing instead on the molecular biology of it and possible implications for demographic spread. But that’s part of what made me label the finding “the most underappreciated fact about gender.”
And as for the 80%-40% numbers, admittedly those are chosen somewhat arbitrarily. It could have been 60%-30% or 70%-35%. The only definite thing was that twice as many previously living women as men have descendants alive today. It depends a bit on how you count, especially because in the past a great many people died before adulthood (so you get higher proportions if you talk about all adults than if you talk about everyone who was born). The crucial implication was that for adult women, the odds of passing on genes were much better than for adult men, and so different strategies were needed.
Some of you wondered whether people really cared that much about having children. Were men taking risks in order to reproduce? This is a point that sometimes confuses people. Sure, there may have been many men and women who didn’t care whether they had children or even who actively wanted to avoid having children. (There still are!) The thing is, they did not leave many descendants. By definition, we are descended from people who did manage to reproduce. Maybe the risk-taking men had no thoughts of having children. But as long as they ended up having more children than the risk-avoiding men, then today’s descendants will have inherited the traits of the risk-seekers, not the risk-avoiders.
The cultural implications of this gender difference also sparked a lot of comments and questions from readers. I’ll present Dr. Baumeister’s response to them in a subsequent post.
Quelle: New York Times
Autor: John Tierney
5. September 2007