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.
[click the following for amazon.co.uk and amazon.ca copies of the book]