On International Men’s Day 2019 (19th November), the Oxford IMD Committee hosted an event at Oxford Town Hall. There were four speakers of which I was one. I confess to having been rather upstaged by the other speakers. Given that two of them were Belinda Brown and Darren Deojee you might be unsurprised. However, I think we were all upstaged by Chaka Artwell. All the talks will appear as online videos soon. For now, the text of my talk is below, and you can hear me read it on my YT channel here. (And now also on video).
What is a man? That is the question I am required to address.
Simple enough. A man is the adult male of the species Homo sapiens.
That innocent seeming, even trite, answer to the question would now be interpreted in some quarters as Incorrect. A man, according to this alternative wisdom, is anyone who cares to call themselves a man – thus rendering the term “man” as entirely meaningless and hence about which there can be nothing to say.
But let us change the interrogative into an imperative. Let us replace the question “what is a man?” with the command “be a man!”. Now we cannot deny that there is real content to that command, as any man subject to it will know. It is a reminder to a man that he has fallen short of expectations in some way. So, there must be some expectations against which he is being judged.
In contrast, say to a woman “be a woman!” and she is likely to merely look bemused and perhaps to reply, puzzled, “I am a woman”, and wonder what you were getting at. Of course, you never would say “be a woman” because, unlike “be a man”, it conveys nothing. Why is “being a man” dependent upon some performance measures, whereas being a woman is not?
The answer lies several hundred million years deep. The question relates to biological sex, and is thus not specific to Homo sapiens. The origin of sex differences lies in the dawn of anisogamous sexual reproduction.
To those who subscribe to the brave new wisdom, the claim that there are innate differences between men and women, and that these have their origin in evolution, is a heresy – referred to as “biologism”. However, this implicitly posits that there is a hiatus, a disconnect, between the origin of non-human species and humans themselves, which is surely winding the clock back a couple of centuries rather than being progressive.
We are animals. And evolution does not apply only to anatomy, but also to innate behavioural characteristics. There would be little point in an animal acquiring the anatomical attributes of a carnivore but the behavioural characteristics of a herbivore – or vice-versa. Behaviour evolves with anatomy, and that will include the social behaviour of humans.
So, here is my hypothesis in answer to the question I am required to address,
- “Man is the disposable sex”
More generally, males of any species are the disposable sex. Maleness itself evolved as a platform for disposability. Let me defend that statement a little.
The use of the word “disposable” here is a shorthand. To be more explicit “male disposability” should be understood as implying,
- That evolutionary pressure acts more strongly on males than females, and,
- That males will tend to be more exposed than females to danger which may result in injury or death.
Let’s review what evidence supports the hypothesis of male disposability. Firstly, the evolutionary perspective.
Remarkably, the origin and persistence of dimorphic sexual reproduction remains unsettled. Compared to asexual reproduction or hermaphroditic reproduction, the dimorphic or anisogamous variety carries a two-fold cost. That is, in dimorphic species it takes a pair of individuals of different sex to create one offspring. In contrast, in asexual or hermaphrodite species, every individual can produce an offspring.
Hence, there must be some powerful evolutionary advantage to dimorphic reproduction to offset this apparent two-fold reduction in birth rate. Naively one might guess that the answer lies in the enhanced genetic variety arising through anisogamous sexual reproduction. But this does not stand up to scrutiny. For one thing, hermaphroditic sexual reproduction also involves recombination of genes and hence has the potential to promote variety without the two-fold cost of dimorphism.
Whilst I must not appear too definitive in respect of matters which are still contentious, the lead theory now is that the success of specifically dimorphic sexual reproduction lies in three things. Firstly that sexual reproduction acts to filter out deleterious mutations; secondly that the burden of this “mutational cleansing” falls disproportionately upon males; and thirdly that sexual dimorphism permits mate selection of males by females. The combination of these three features comprises the male genetic filter mechanism. Males are the guinea pigs for genetic mutations, but if the mutation confers disadvantage such genetically inferior males – those that do not simply die – are not chosen as mates. It is this mechanism which confers evolutionary benefit to offset the two-fold cost of dimorphic sex.
In short, the evolutionary purpose of males is to be disposable.
This male genetic filter mechanism is the ground-zero of male disposability. All specific manifestations of male disposability are, I claim, consequences of it. This is rather a bold claim given that, in the case of humans, many of the manifestations of male disposability are highly culture specific.
*** for references and a broader discussion of the ‘male genetic filter’ hypothesis see: The Bottom of the Rabbit Hole. See also, “The sexes function to purge mutations via selection on males, boosting the ability of sex to maintain genomic integrity” by Steve Moxon, New Males Studies (2019) 8(1), 25-51.
Is there evidence that selection pressure on men is greater than that upon women? Indeed there is. Studies of mutation rates in Y-chromosome DNA compared with that in mitochondrial DNA indicates that, since ancient times, about 80% of women bore children, but only about 40% of men left progeny. At certain times, such as during the Neolithic agricultural revolution, the proportion of men successfully reproducing was smaller still.
Further evidence is provided by the skew in genes which are expressed. “Expression” in this context refers to the allele of the homologous gene pair which is activated and thus has an effect on the individual. It is now known that mammals express more genetic variance from the father than from the mother. Consequently it’s more important to get good genes from the father because bad genes from the father are more likely to be expressed, and hence be deleterious, than bad genes from the mother. In other words, evolutionary pressure acts more severely on the male, consistent with the male genetic filter hypothesis.
The hypothesis would suggest an evolved tendency for males to be more vulnerable to disease than females, thus culling the less strong males. Is there evidence for this? Yes, there is. There is a staggeringly large sex difference in death rates at all ages from zero to 80. In the UK, men are 43% more likely to die before age 75 than women, and 78% more likely to die before age 45. Some part of this will be related to socioeconomics and lifestyle issues, but there is also a biological factor. This is evidenced by the death rate of male babies and boys up to age 10 being 10% to 30% greater than that for girls the same age.
One factor in this is that testosterone is an immunosuppressant. But the male foetus is at greater risk than the female from virtually all medical complications and developmental disorders. A BMJ article observed that, “The disadvantages of the male are usually seen as socially mediated. But even from conception, before social effects come into play, males are more vulnerable than females. Social attitudes about the resilience of boys compound the biological deficit.”
But what about the male disadvantages which are not overtly biological but rather socially or culturally instantiated? These too are manifestations of male disposability. The importance of dimorphism lies in mate selection of males by females. Genetic quality in males is made apparent in multiple ways, including various surrogates such as anatomical or behavioural displays as well as male hierarchies. Those individuals who are filtered out by this mechanism are evolutionary dross, and nature wastes no compassion upon them. They are disposed of. Males are obliged to play a high-risk game. To decline to play is to lose.
You may be sceptical on the grounds that our rational conscious minds might be expected to veto such primitive tendencies; that our sense of fairness – or perhaps the social power of males – would neutralise the genetically encouraged disposability of males. But such doubts simply underestimate the strength of our innate proclivities.
It is often the case that humans’ cognitive capacity provides an obstacle to evolution’s imposition of genetically preferred behavioural characteristics. We humans need to believe that we are in charge of ourselves, that we are acting for rational reasons which we understand, and are not merely being driven like automatons as helpless slaves of our genes. Emotions frequently provide the vehicle for providing us with proximate rationalisations of our behaviours whose true distal origin is genetic. The human pair bond, so central to our evolutionary success as a species, is a case in point – large swathes of our culture being spins-offs from the associated emotional complexes – I refer, of course, to love.
But even our rational capacity is not so rational as we fondly believe. With the bulk of our cognition being subconscious there is ample scope for our genes to fool us. The empathy gap, about which I have written a great deal, is a psychological disposition, in both sexes, which facilitates male disposability by rendering it less apparent. Our ability to ignore, reinterpret or distort empirical evidence when it fails to align with what we need to believe is quite remarkable. Here, then, are some of its results,
- Where there is risk, we are more comfortable if it is men not women exposed to the risk. Thus, virtually all dirty, laborious or dangerous jobs are done by men.
- The extreme example is war.
- Violence perpetrated against men is perceived as less significant than that perpetrated against women. The entirety of the Violence Against Women and Girls policies are testament to that.
- The kidnapping of 360 girls from Chibok, Nigeria, is perceived as more heinous than the burning alive of thousands of boys.
- Hilary Clinton’s remark that women have always been the primary victims of war is symptomatic of a mindset in which men are not the primary victims of their own deaths.
- Criminal sanctions against men are far more severe than against women, for the same crime, because one sex is regarded as precious and the other as disposable.
- In the case of contested child contact, it is the father who is overwhelmingly the parent estranged from his children, a situation which society tacitly condones.
- Paternity fraud is common but excites no public concern. In contrast, a single instance of a mother being sent home from a maternity ward with the wrong baby is headline news.
- The strikingly distinct public perceptions of male and female genital mutilation is another example.
All these are examples of male disposability, but most people do not perceive them as such, regarding them instead as acceptable, as simply right and proper, just the way things are. This is because male disposability itself is acceptable – provided that one does not draw attention to the fact that it is actually prejudice. But prejudice is not perceived as such providing that the prejudice is sufficiently thorough, and both sexes are genetically predisposed to be prejudiced in precisely this manner.
The mantras of male privilege and male toxicity are increasingly desperate attempts to keep male disposability from being apprehended because we have a visceral need to maintain male disposability which requires that it remains covert.
So, whilst one answer to the question “what is a man?” is that man is the disposable sex, this is actually only the beginning of an answer. What I have not addressed are those positive attributes of a man which are correlated with his very disposability. For to acquiesce to one’s own disposability is self-sacrifice, and self-sacrifice is a noble virtue. On that characteristic a great part of history turns – but that is a topic for another time.
“What a piece of work is man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals.” (Hamlet)