The Culture of Males and Females

August 20, 2007

New York Times

Is There Anything Good About Men? And Other Tricky Questions

By John Tierney

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

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

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

"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

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.


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