Is There Anything Good About Men?

The title of Florida State psychologist Roy Baumeister’s book speaks to how silly much of the rhetoric surrounding the gender debate has become. Dare I suggest that both sexes are good?  We don’t need our men to be more like women, nor our women to be more like men.  Both sexes need each other for who they are.  Someone had to write this book and I’m glad that Baumeister had the audacity (and tenure) needed to do so.  To put it simply, this is hands-down the best book on gender differences I’ve ever read.

Early in the book, Baumeister introduces us to the Imaginary Feminist.  She represents the way many men perceive feminists (Baumeister’s Imaginary Feminist almost perfectly depicts how I imagine feminists).  Of course, She only represents the stereotypical views most people have of feminists and not the entirety (or complexity) of views that any one actual feminist may have.  Basically, the Imaginary Feminist wants us to believe that men have rigged the world to help each other out and oppress women.  As men know, however, the competition for status, resources, and mates is not always friendly, and often ruthless.  Norah Vincent, a lesbian feminist who spent the better part of a year living as an “undercover man”, learned and confessed in her memoir that maybe it’s not so great to be a man after all.

In an age of political correctness gone wrong it has become taboo to explain unequal outcomes in our world through things like gender differences.  Despite what the Imaginary Feminist would have you believe, discrimination does not necessarily occur in situations where there is an unequal outcome.  This is true even when all participants have equal levels of innate talent.

Consider the controversy that surrounded Larry Summers, which Baumeister discusses briefly in the book.  Summers, the former president of Harvard University, was demonized for making a speculation about why there are more men at the top of elite science departments.  Summers suggested that there might possibly be a larger distribution of men in the right tail of intellectual ability.  It turns out that Summers was right.  There is now very solid scientific evidence supporting his speculation.  The data show that the male distribution of IQ scores has fatter tails than does the female distribution. In other words, there are more males clustered together at the extremes. Mother Nature apparently gambles more on males.

When the Imaginary Feminist evokes the case that women are oppressed because they are underrepresented in what She perceives to be the elite parts of society, She fails to realize a critical point, they are also underrepresented in the dregs of society.  While men tend to predominately occupy the top positions in society, they also overwhelmingly dominate the bottom positions in society too, you know, the places like prisons.

Innate talent only takes you so far.  Other attributes like discipline and motivation matter greatly too, and they can explain the differences in unequal outcomes.  To Baumeister, the real question, then, is: do men and women differ in things like their motivations to do certain tasks and achieve certain things?

To help answer this question, Baumeister directs readers to some surveys conducted amongst a population of female graduates from elite universities.  As Baumeister points out, it’s fair to say that these women have elite employers drooling over them.  Despite being in high demand, though, significant portions of these top-performing women are unemployed several years after they graduate.  How can this be?  Well, it turns out that these highly talented women make the decision to stay home with their children instead of pursuing their careers.  It’s not oppression (or lack of talent) that’s keeping these women from working in the top of their fields, but rather, their maternal instinct.  These women should remind us that if there is one thing to learn from economics, it’s that life is about trade-offs — you can’t have it all.

Here’s an interesting question from the book:  What percentage of your ancestors were men?  Baumeister, using DNA evidence, explains that today’s human population is descended from twice as many women as men.  Does this fact provide any insight into the nature of gender differences?  Indeed, it does.

An interesting sexual experiment was conducted on a college campus.  The experimenters sent out an attractive young female to approach college-age males and ask them if they wanted to go back to her room and have casual sex.  Not surprisingly, nearly 75% of the young men agreed to have sex with the anonymous woman.  The experiment was then reversed.  Again, not surprisingly, there were no female takers.  The reason the results from this experiment are not surprising come from what we know about sexual economics.

Due to the sexual economics of the situation, men have a relatively low cost of copulation. This means that men are relatively less picky about who they’ll have sex with than are women (visit your local pub on a Friday night if you don’t believe me).  The most sexually ambitious and genetically fit men have been the ones to have the most sex (and the most offspring) throughout the course of evolution.  Conversely, the men who aren’t so genetically fit (and lack sexual ambition) often fail to reproduce at all and their bad genes run into an evolutionary cul-de-sac.

If men are evolutionarily motivated to have a large quantity of mates, then women are focused on quality of mates.  As Genghis Khan demonstrated, a single man can father thousands of kids in one lifetime, but a woman cannot. She gets far fewer chances at genetic eternity and thus it’s in her best interest to hold out for the best sperm she can find. After-all, she potentially has to lug around a baby for nine months, which is quite costly.

And what does sexual economics tell us about likelihood of reproduction for each sex?  Well, at the margin, men add less reproductive value than do women. Throughout our evolutionary history, then, almost all women who wanted to were able to find a mate.  Many genetically unfit men, however, died without ever impregnating a female.  Their services simply weren’t needed since the elite males can spread their seed to thousands upon thousands of females.  Along these lines, Baumeister argues that since a single woman can only have a very limited number of babies during her lifetime, women have evolved risk-aversion.  Men, for evolutionary reasons, strive for that Khan-like sexual greatness, which often involves risk.  This point, then, might help explain why men tend to thrive in modern broad, but shallow social networks (like corporations or academia) and why woman prefer more tight-knit and small intimate groups (like family life).

One thing many people may find shocking is that Baumeister claims cultures flourish by exploiting men.  So how exactly do cultures exploit men?  Again, the answer isn’t terribly romantic, but science isn’t in the business of discovering only pleasant truths.  It’s argued that marriage is one way men are exploited.  He sees the cultural institution as a way of transferring wealth earned by men to women and children.  As one shrewd financier pointed out to a woman who was seeking advice on how to marry a millionaire in a NYC Craigslist ad, men get the raw end of the marriage bargain over time.  Over time, females tend to gain weight and lose their sexual appeal.  The men, however, become wealthier and more powerful, which only makes them more sexually attractive as they age.

By the end of the book, we learn that the problem with the Imaginary Feminist is that she wants to ignore the facts because they don’t mesh well with her ideology and worldview.  The facts, however, are still the facts, even if they’re not convenient ones for Her.  I’m left to wonder, if the Imaginary Feminist got Her way, shouldn’t 50% of the the humans who are electrocuted and put in prison be female?  Why is She so focused on equality of outcome in some spheres, but not in others?  I guess political correctness only cuts one way.

Ultimately, as you might expect, Baumeister did find something good to say about men all the while avoiding androcentrism.  This is a book that sensible people of both sexes will appreciate and it’s a must-read for those who want to have meaningful discussions about gender differences.  In America there seems to be much concern and cultural malaise about the disappearance of “real men”, but it’s mostly women I hear complaining about it.  The Imaginary Feminist and her ilk should be careful about what they wish for.


The 10,000 Year Explosion

The evolutionary biologist, Steven Jay Gould, once famously said that “There’s been no biological change in humans in 40,000 or 50,000 years. Everything we call culture and civilization we’ve built with the same body and brain.”  Nonsense say University of Utah anthropologists Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending.  Their book, The 10,000 Year Explosion, dismantles Gould’s claim in elegant fashion by arguing that human evolution has not stagnated, but rather, it has actually accelerated rapidly.  In fact, so much so that it “is now happening about 100 times faster than its long-term average over the six million years of our existence.”

If this sounds a bit far fetched, then consider the work of a Russian scientist named Dmitri Belyaev.  In the 1950s, Belyaev and his team bred silver foxes by selecting only those individual foxes that showed the least fear of humans.  After roughly ten generations of controlled breeding, the domesticated silver foxes showed significant changes in their nature.  They no longer showed any fear of humans and often wagged their tails and licked their human caretakers to show affection.  In other words, they became dogs.

Now, humans and foxes are certainly different, but if foxes can evolve into dogs in such a relatively short time period, shouldn’t we consider what this might mean for human evolution?  At the very least, this should make us consider what happens to our brains, biological makeup, and behavior after major environmental changing events (e.g. the agricultural revolution or the rise of the Internet).

Cochran and Harpending, who run a blog called West Hunter, essentially argue that the adoption of agriculture has dramatically altered the course of human evolution.  And there is plenty of evidence to confirm that genetic innovation has run rampant since the dawn of agriculture.  For example, the gene that allows one to tolerate lactose appears to have arisen in Europe about 8,000 years ago among the first humans who herded cows and other milk-producing animals.

The authors claim that the lactose-digesting gene quickly spread throughout parts of Eurasia.  New genetic variants, like the one that allows people to tolerate lactose, thrived namely because it helped people cope with the challenges an agricultural way of life presented.  Is a similar effect happening now to those of us who are constantly plugged-in?  I can’t help but think that there are changes going on in my brain from all the information I consume in the modern digital world.

Jared Diamond, for one, has argued that the agricultural revolution was the worst mistake of the human race.  Then, there are those who argue that the industrial revolution was the worst mistake of the human race.  And now I’m sure there those who argue that the digital revolution was the worst mistake of the human race.  Cochran and Harpending, however, ultimately refrain from anthropomorphically commenting on whether or not any of these events are “good” or “bad”.  Cochran and Harpending do acknowledge, however, that most hunter-gatherers were egalitarian anarchists.  As they put it, “They didn’t have chiefs or bosses, and they didn’t have much use for anyone who tried to be a boss.  Bushmen today still laugh at wannabe “big men”.  Perhaps we could learn from them.”  Touché!

With agriculture came the rise of elites (defined as those who live almost solely off the work of others), who are clearly still a nuisance today.  Agriculture certainly enabled the rise of strong governments (although forms of governance arguably already existed).  Strong governments need individuals as citizens who can be “tamed” (like the Russian foxes) in order to function properly.  Not surprisingly, peoples with little or no exposure to agriculture tend to be less submissive, on average, than members of longtime agricultural societies.  As the authors put it: “One possible indicator of tameness is the ease with which people can be enslaved, and our reading of history suggests that some peoples with little or no evolutionary exposure to agriculture ‘would not endure the yoke’, as was said of Indians captured by the Puritans in the Pequot War of 1636.”  The authors also remind us that the Bushmen have been described as the “the anarchist of South Africa” for a reason.

As an evolutionary health enthusiast, I found the parts of this book that related to human diet and health very interesting.  This book should make open-minded and well informed evolutionary health enthusiasts question some of their own basic assumptions and arguments.  Are all grains as bad as some Paleo zealots make them out to be?

Near the end of the book, Cochran and Harpending make the controversial argument that people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent (European Jews) have, on average, evolved a higher level of intelligence relative to other ethnic groups.  Politically incorrect as it may be to say, the evidence seems to confirm that human races are truly genetically different at some levels (although they are indeed mainly similar).  Back in 2010, it was even confirmed that most of us have at least a little neanderthal in us.

This book is mischievous, humorous, lively, and very educational.  In the end, Cochran and Harpending remind us that “history looks more and more like a science fiction novel in which mutants repeatedly arise and displace normal humans –sometimes quietly, simply by surviving, sometimes as a conquering horde.”  I think it’s fair to say that without a doubt Steven Jay Gould was grossly mistaken.  After reading this book, I’ve only been left to wonder about where exactly evolution plans on taking us.

13 Bankers

Oligarchy, n., a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes.

The United States is ruled by an oligarchy that, despite almost wrecking the world economy, has only grown more powerful and more resistant to change.  Perched atop this structure are 13 bankers who are involved with the six mega-banks (Bank of America, JPMorgan, Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley) that have been rendered “too big too fail”.  How did this happen?  How did the American financial system develop in this way?  The answer to these questions is largely the subject of Simon Johnson’s and James Kwak’s book 13 Bankers.

It’s worth noting that the authors do a wonderful job of detailing the numerous financial crises that have occurred across the world (Korea and Russia were particularly interesting case studies).  Overall, the book is very intelligible (most of the time) to the lay reader. Due to the politics and incentives (or lack of disincentives) in our financial system, bankers have been encouraged to engage in high risk investments.  Here’s the catch though: when the risky investments work out, the bankers keep the profits, but when the investments fail, we (the taxpayers) take the losses and bail out the bankers.  So the bankers have upside with no downside — sounds pretty nice, right? Although many people blame the advent of derivatives like credit default swaps in the early 90’s as the catalyst for the financial crisis of 2008, the root of the problem dates back much further.  Johnson and Kwak, who also write an economics blog called The Baseline Scenario, argue that the origins of the most recent financial crisis dates back much further than much of the surface-level analysis in the news would have us believe.  In fact, they believe the roots of the crisis are as old as the beginnings of the United States’ banking history itself.  Thomas Jefferson, then, rightly feared what might happen if there were concentrated banking power amongst a few financial elites. Ultimately, the financial crisis of 2008 wasn’t really so much a financial crisis as it was a crisis in political economy.  The fact that these six mega-banks came to control roughly 60 percent of America’s GPD is telling of how large and powerful they have become.  Some bankers want us to believe that finance plays an important role in allocating capital throughout the economy and that unregulated finance is important for markets to work properly.  After-all, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein has assured the public that he is “doing God’s work”, since banks raise money for companies who employ people and make things.  As a general rule of thumb, if someone tells you they are “doing God’s work”, you can be certain they aren’t. To return to a healthy balance in our economy, the authors recommend that banks be “busted”.  Particularly, they suggest that each bank is limited to no more than 4% of U.S. GDP (investment banks would have a lower limit of 2%).  Banks, then, could be allowed to fail without threatening the take-down of the entire economy.  The best part of this solution is that taxpayers would no longer “have to” subsidize wealthy bankers through bailouts when things turn south. It’s important to remember that capitalism isn’t about only about incentives, it’s also about disincentives.  Bankers are operating in a domain where there is a gross asymmetry, i.e., they are exposed to the upside and immune from the downside.  In the end, Johnson and Kwak remind us that not matter how nicely we ask, bankers won’t change on their own accord.  As they put it, “Simply asking bankers to behave differently will not work; the solution can only come by changing the rules of the financial system, which requires government action.”  In the end, I’m not sure what the correct process to get there is, but ultimately I agree with the authors, the mega-banks do indeed need to become small enough to fail.

Book Review: The Conundrum

There is an old proverb that says: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The road to environmental destruction is no different.  Paved roads, after-all, only encourage more people to drive by making driving more pleasant.  In his book, The Conundrum, David Owen makes a compelling case that efficiency improvements and green technology will not only fail to cure our environmental woes, they may actually be making things worse.  Is it really possible, though, that most of the environmental do-goodery out there is actually making things worse?

First off, it’s interesting to note that Owen concedes many of the highly questionable assumptions that environmentalists desperately want others to accept, namely that global warming is real, that it matters, and that we can do something to stop or slow it down through our actions.  Unlike climate skeptics or agnostics (such as myself), Owen proceeds as if these assumptions are true.  Accordingly, his book is focused on the internal debate within the environmentalist community.

So how is it possible that efficiency improvements may actually make things worse?  The answer lies within the realm of economic logic.  Consider efficiency improvements in automobiles, which many environmentalists champion as the sorts of innovation that will solve our environmental woes.  Let’s suppose that instead of 30 mpg a new hybrid car gets 50 mpg (this number doesn’t actually matter, it’s the logic that is important).  If the number of miles every person drove was fixed, this indeed would provide a net improvement for the environment, but that’s resting on a weak assumption, i.e., that the number of miles people choose to drive is fixed.

As the logic of economics tell us, as the cost of driving a mile decreases, people will choose to drive more miles.  Generally speaking, a decrease in the price of a good or service will increase the quantity demanded.  Thus with a lower price for driving a mile, more miles will be demanded, which will cause people to buy more fuel. The resulting increase in the demand for fuel is known as the rebound effect.

Essentially this means (at least in many domains) that advances in energy efficiency will lower the cost of the activity, but this in turn will cause people to engage in that activity more.  At the end of the day, this often cancels out any savings, either financial or environmental.  When the rebound effect actually exceeds the savings, economists call it the Jevons paradox. In the book, Owen refers to this idea as The Prius Fallacy, which is “a belief that switching to an ostensibly more efficient travel mode turns mobility itself into an environmental positive.”

In one section of the book, Owen poses the following question (which is also the title of the chapter): “What Would a Truly Green Car Look Like?”  According to Owen it would have, “No air conditioner, no heater, no radio, unpadded seats, open passenger compartment, top speed of twenty-five miles an hour, fuel economy of five or ten miles a gallon.”  Again, this is because efficiencies and luxuries only encourage people to use them more by making the activity more pleasant.

I think soup kitchens serve as a great example when explaining this phenomenon.  If soup kitchens started serving delicious and quality food in an efficient manner, there would be a problem of people eating there who didn’t really need it, therefore they would likely need to be policed.  How do we as a society avoid wasting resources on policing places like soup kitchens?  The economists tool for making sure that only really poor people eat at soup kitchens is to make it inefficiently painful to get low quality food. Similarly, the same logic applies to making driving unpleasant.  Enough so, at least, to make mass transit, cycling, or walking relatively more appealing options.

Owen reminds us that: “One of our favorite green tricks is reframing luxury consumption preferences as gifts to humanity.”  To put this in the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s terms, this is also a form of conspicuous consumption I like to refer to as being conspicuously environmental.  It turns out that along with the pretensions in their air they create, the average Prius driving Boulderite or Portlander causes more harm to the environment than does your average Manahattanite. Living in a dense city, according to the evidence, is one of the best things you can do for the environment on an individual level.  At one point in the book, Owen lamented the fact (at least environmentally) that he and his wife moved away from Manhattan, a place which he has described as a “utopian environmentalist community”. On average, New York state residents have a far lesser carbon footprint per person than other state’s residents (largely thanks to NYC residents).

Much like the answer to our obesity woes, the general solution to our environmental problems is rather simple: consume less.  If that’s the case, then making some things more inefficient (not less) is the answer.  But nobody wants to hear that. Westerners (particularly Americans) want the cure-all pills, the crazy workouts, and the conspicuously environmental toys. How many people got rid of their iPad 2 because their iPad 3 no longer worked? As Owens puts it, “How appealing would “green” seem if it meant less innovation and fewer cool gadgets — not more?”

In the end, Owen argues (pessimistic as it may be) that individual decisions like using canvas bags at the grocery store won’t actually make a difference.  Riding your bike to grocery store may make you feel better, but it isn’t going to save the world either. Because of the complexities of the economic system, the decision for an individual to voluntary consume less gas (thereby decreasing demand) will only make it cheaper for someone else (assuming the supply is the same).  Our best intentions to save humanity and the world often make things worse. As Owen argues, that’s part of the conundrum.

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The Art of Travel

In his philosophical book, The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton writes, “If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest –in all its ardor and paradoxes– than our travels.”  Ultimately, he suggests that most of us are sadly ignorant when it comes to the art of travel and I suspect that’s he correct in that diagnosis.  Using his essayistic style and the aid of dead painters and poets, aesthetes, and Romantics, De Botton explores the buzz around travel in wonderful detail.  Accordingly, I highly recommend this book.

A while back, but long after this book was published, De Botton tweeted: “Travel agents would be wiser to ask us what we hope to change about our lives rather than simply where we wish to go.”  In my opinion, his aphorism smacks of truth and it largely explains what this book is about.  Using his keen command of the English language, De Botton explores the philosophy of travel in great depth.  He reminds us that we are often given advice on where to travel to, but seldom do we hear why and how we should travel.

Speaking of how we travel, you may be wondering what De Botton makes of things like the airplane.  “The plane,” he writes, “a symbol or worldliness, carrying within itself a trace of all the lands it has crossed; its eternal mobility offering an imaginative counterweight to feelings of stagnation and confinement.”

It’s interesting to note that people can manage to be either happy or miserable in the most beautiful locations in the world. The underlying problem with travel, of course, is that you can never actually escape yourself.  De Botton shares an interesting anecdote about his trip to the Barbados.  He goes on to inform readers that he had inadvertently brought himself with himself to the island.  I was reminded that when we travel as a form of escapism, it’s usually to escape something that is plaguing us internally, not externally.

Pascal was an astute observer of the humanity. “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness,” he wrote, “is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”  What we find appealing, exotic, and intoxicating in foreign lands may simply be what we secretly long for at home in vain.  Perhaps the aim of travel, then, is to learn to become a more sophisticated tourist in your own mind.

Book Review: Better Off

As most of us continue to add more and more technology to our lives a few important questions arise: Is technology enhancing our lives or degrading them? How much technology is too much and how much is not enough? How does one find the appropriate balance of technology? In his book, Better Off, Eric Brende explores these questions in ample detail. Brende holds degrees from Yale, Washburn University, and MIT and is a modern day Thoreau of sorts. Unlike most of us, Brende is in a unique position to answer the questions I posed; he’s more than just an armchair philosopher of technology. What I mean by that is that Brende has practical experience with the power of technological subtraction. He has actually conducted an experiment where he lived off the grid for 18 months. Better Off is the telling account of what he learned during that experience.

I certainly don’t agree with everything that Brende had to say, particularly some of the religious overtones; however, he hit the nail on the head when it comes to some of the technological ills that plague modern society.

We embrace technology in the name of efficiency, but to what avail? So we can drive to gyms in order to walk on treadmills? In my opinion, many so-called technological efficiencies are really hindrances to human flourishing. Adam Smith wrote about similar applications of this principle back in the 18th century, although he was probably not the first person to come to such a realization either. No where are technological ills more prevalent than in the modern American food system. Again, this is all done in the name of efficiency and it’s costing us our health.

As I turned the pages, I was continually reminded of “The Fisherman’s Parable.” Oftentimes it seems that all this technology has us running in circles. Perhaps we wouldn’t have to “work” so hard to put food on the table, pay for cars and insurance, pay for gym memberships, pay for unnecessary medical procedures, etc. if we cut out some of these technological ills.

This book reenforced a strong held belief of mine: health and well-being are largely subtractive. Brende obviously took it to the extreme by growing all of his own food and riding his bike or walking everywhere, but I think there are important lessons that can be learned from him. I’m not interested in living entirely off the grid, but I am interested in continuing to ruminate over the following questions: Is all of this technology making our lives any easier? Are we any more fulfilled? And most importantly, are we any happier?  Brende has some interesting answers that are worth considering.

[click the following for and copies of the book]