02 January 2010

Is There Anything Good About Men?

So I took a break from doing serious reading or thinking for a while, distracting myself with a perfectly mindless video game (Torchlight - if you like Diablo style games, I recommend it!). But now it's time to return to the real world, I suppose.

Through a series of links, I eventually found myself reading Is There Anything Good About Men? by Dr. Roy F. Baumeister. As always, I would encourage you to go read the article yourself first and then read my two cents, but I can't control you and certainly won't attempt to.

He seems to reject, or at least minimize, the idea that one gender is "better" or "more capable" than the other gender in favor of a theory that asserts two things: men and women have different motivations (which manifest themselves in ways that confuse us into thinking men and women have different abilities) and men and women socialize differently.

According to Baumeister, women prefer intimate one-on-one social interactions, which he claims are vital for the continued existence of the species. Men, however, favor "shallower" and less personable group interactions. Men are more likely to be attracted to the impersonal group socialization of a corporate hierarchy, for instance. He has several examples that illustrate and flesh out these points.

The upshot of all of this is a rejection of the feminist conception of the world being organized as a patriarchy designed to oppress women (which Baumeister calls at one point a "conspiracy theory.") Instead, he says this (emphasis from original link retained):

Note that all those things I listed — literature, art, science, etc — are optional. Women were doing what was vital for the survival of the species. Without intimate care and nurturance, children won’t survive, and the group will die out. Women contributed the necessities of life. Men’s contributions were more optional, luxuries perhaps. But culture is a powerful engine of making life better. Across many generations, culture can create large amounts of wealth, knowledge, and power. Culture did this — but mainly in the men’s sphere.

Thus, the reason for the emergence of gender inequality may have little to do with men pushing women down in some dubious patriarchal conspiracy. Rather, it came from the fact that wealth, knowledge, and power were created in the men’s sphere. This is what pushed the men’s sphere ahead. Not oppression.

An undercurrent for his entire discourse is a fact he asserts early on - today's human population is descended from twice as many women as men. He discusses at length the implications of this - because women are more assured of reproductive success, for instance, they may have evolved to have more "safe" behaviors whereas men evolved to have more risky behaviors, and so on.

He gives an alternative interpretation of one of FM's favorite allegories (see mistake #5), which I found interesting if only because I recognized it before:

Throughout most of history and prehistory, giving birth was at the center of the women’s sphere, and men were totally excluded. Men were rarely or never present at childbirth, nor was the knowledge about birthing even shared with them. But not very long ago, men were finally allowed to get involved, and the men were able to figure out ways to make childbirth safer for both mother and baby. Think of it: the most quintessentially female activity, and yet the men were able to improve on it in ways the women had not discovered for thousands and thousands of years.

Let’s not overstate. The women had after all managed childbirth pretty well for all those centuries. The species had survived, which is the bottom line. The women had managed to get the essential job done. What the men added was, from the perspective of the group or species at least, optional, a bonus: some mothers and babies survived who would otherwise have died. Still, the improvements show some value coming from the male way of being social. Large networks can collect and accumulate information better than small ones, and so in a relatively short time the men were able to discover improvements that the women hadn’t been able to find. Again, it’s not that the men were smarter or more capable. It’s just that the women shared their knowledge individually, from mother to daughter, or from one midwife to another, and in the long run this could not accumulate and progress as effectively as in the larger groups of shallower relationships favored by men.

He hits on a lot of common ground and themes I've seen before (e.g., the phrase "women and children" in the context of reporting deaths in a newspaper literally means men are worth less than either of those two groups - building to the point that men are more expendable to society). Or another that has bugged me personally, in the past: "...there is still some sense that manhood must be earned. Every adult female is a woman and is entitled to respect as such, but many cultures withhold respect from the males until and unless the lads prove themselves."

Ultimately, it's all about getting laid:

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.

After years of listening to, reading about and debating whether or not men and women have different biological abilities that determine their fate, it was, at the very least, a refreshing change of pace to read something that provided a seemingly cogent alternative. The problem is that it's from a professor of psychology (which isn't exactly yet a hard science - but that may change with time and increased understanding of the mechanics of the brain) and there wasn't any sources cited to investigate further.




fschmidt said...

I didn't read the whole article by Baumeister. It's long and probably doesn't say anything I haven't seen before. But from what you wrote here, I would make some points. One is that in modern culture, cooperation between men is breaking down. From the tone of this writer, it seems that he assumes that this is the way things always were. In fact, successful cultures form when a small group of men cooperate and form strong bonds to the group. Success comes not from men competing within the group, but from a group of men who cooperate to defeat other groups of men who are less able to cooperate with each other.

Regarding men versus women, Devlin has a much clearer understanding of the issues. A successful culture requires monogamy and women are naturally opposed to monogamy. Therefore, men must dominate society for a society to be successful. Women will see this enforced monogamy as oppression.

J. Durden said...

His article avoids making value judgments. I would say his statements lend more towards the idea that men have always cooperated - albeit on a larger and more impersonal scale than women. He does not talk about the origins of successful cultures so much as he talks about the dynamics of successful cultures.

I think it is fair also to note that men are "naturally opposed" to monogamy, insomuch as they are much more naturally inclined to prefer a polygamist fantasy. However, men seem much more naturally inclined to compromise, whereas women do not.