23 December 1995

The male dodo: are men necessary? (The Economist, December 1995), *****

Image of a dodo, an extinct bird
This post is a review of a most interesting article published in todays' The Economist. It is not about economics, or politics. Not directly anyway. It is about the future of the world, and its hypothesis could definitely affect world politics and economics in a profound way.

When traveling around the world, it is disconcerting to find that most civilizations tend to favor men over women. This article makes it clear that this is not just unfair and counterproductive (we knew that) but ultimately pointless.

As a (still) childless male probably past the middle point of my life, this issues is not likely to concern me directly. I don't see how a surge in the number of young females worldwide could negatively affect my well being. However it might well be that when someone will read this post in one hundred years they will no longer find it funny. It might by then by trite and old stuff.

Here is the article:

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The Male Dodo: Are Men Necessary?

(The Economist, December 23, 1995-January 5, 1996)

Ours is, or was, a man’s world. But biologically speaking, male supremacy hangs by a thread. In half-playful dread, a zoologist looks at what men have to fear from the march of evolution.

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Imagine a white, middle-class, western couple about to pick the sex of their next child (this choice will soon no longer be a fantasy). If they are rational and thorough people, never in a 1,000 years would they choose a boy. Not only is ours more and more a woman's world; by the second quarter of the 21st century, when a child born now will be mature, it will be time to wonder if men have a future. In many areas of life they will be marginal, in others an expensive nuisance.

If that sounds wild or overdone, consider the more glaring weaknesses in the so-called stronger sex. Start with medical ones. Boys are more often born with inherited diseases. Because they do not have a spare x-chromosome, whereas girls do, boys with a faulty gene have no back-up. The effects of this deficiency can range from colour-blindness to haemophilia.

Boys tend to have more troubled childhoods, too. More than twice as many boys as girls are autistic—meaning they so totally fail to develop normal social abilities that they cannot function independently. They are eight times as likely as girls are to be hyperactive—uncontrollably jumpy and energetic. Dyslexia and stuttering are nearly five times as common among men. As most parents of both will tell you, bringing up a boy can be considerably more fraught and risky than bringing up a girl.

It is not much better at the other end of life. Until early this century, American men tended to live as long as or longer than women. Since then a gap has opened up, and it is getting steadily wider each year. Men now die on average fully seven years before women born in the same year. More strikingly, male mortality is rising in relation to female mortality in every age group.

One of the main reasons for this is that men get more of most diseases than women. Before the age of 65 men are more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as women; they are also more likely to suffer strokes, ulcers and liver failure. Half of all men get cancer, compared with only one-third of women. Smoking, which until recently was largely a male pastime, accounts for some of this difference, but not all. According to Andrew Kimbrell (The Masculine Mystique; Ballantine), the death rate from cancer has risen by 21% in men in 30 years, while it has stayed the same for women.

For these depressing medical facts, there is a one-word explanation: testosterone. The male steroid hormone weakens the body’s resistance to infectious diseases and cancer; it also seems to cause the body to age more rapidly. Eunuchs usually live much longer than other men. To the conspiracy-minded, testosterone might even look like part of an evolutionary plot on behalf of females.

Next, consider boys’ educational weaknesses. Evidence is growing that on many counts girls are cleverer than boys….

Similar findings come from America. Boys there are half as likely again to be held back a grade in school at age 13; twice as likely to be in special education and twice as likely to drop out of high school altogether. Girls are more likely than boys to go to university, still more likely to graduate, and even more likely to do a master’s degree.

Testosterone’s peak

After school, our putative couple’s hypothetical son would then embark on another risk-fraught period of life as the output of testosterone reached a peak. Talk of violence and, more often than not, you are talking about young men. About 80% of murder victims are men, as are 90% of murderers. Most of these are in their 20s and the cause of most murders is hot-blooded, testosterone-induced arguments over status and love. Well aware of the connection between gender and crime, some American feminists have even proposed a male poll tax to help pay for police and prisons.

Licking wounds and drowning sorrows, young men get hooked on drugs or alcohol about twice as often as women. But that leads to more violence. More than 80% of drunken drivers and those arrested for drug offences are men. The sex ratio of prisoners in United States jails is more than ten men to each woman, and men get longer sentences for similar offences. The great majority of AIDS victims in America (though not in Africa) are men. Men attempting suicide are four times as likely as women to succeed.

Should a man survive his burst of testosterone—most do—and reach the age of 30, the chances are increasing that he will find himself without steady work. The number of American men in full-time employment is falling by about 1m a year. The number of employed women is rising at almost the same rate. If employment trends continue as now, by the end of the century if not before the United States will be employing more women than men.

Britain is not far behind. On Tyneside, once a byword for heavy industries employing skilled men in secure jobs while their wives stayed at home, the reversal is now so acute that a locally-born playwright, Alan Plater, has written a play about it. Shooting the Legend is set in a colliery’s social-welfare club run by unemployed men whose wives work. It is no joke. Roughly, for every new (commonly female) job in banking or airline reservation that has been created in the region since 1980, another in shipbuilding or heavy engineering has been lost.

One reason for this is a change in the nature of work. As each year goes by, job openings in agriculture, manual labour, metal-banging and machine-handling decline, while work in retailing, word-processing, services and health care—all traditionally female jobs—opens up. At its simplest, as computers replace tractors, brain is replacing brawn. Now that they are more and more educated, women will be almost certain to start claiming their rewards. (Conspiratorialists will recall that the original idea for the modern computer was due to a woman, Ada Lovelace.

Should some lucky male, having run this gauntlet, survive long enough to turn to sex with a woman, he will find he has entered a war zone where the enemy has many things, including law, on her side. Among many animal species males are the seducing sex; females the sex that decides whether to be seduced. Interestingly, this is less true for species where males nourish females or foster offspring—virtues females will seduce for. But a widespread pattern is that females flirt, men pounce. Among humans, this preserve is laced with rules, written or unwritten, and full of risks.

Think, to take a tricky but salient example, of date rape. According to Andrea Dworkin, an American feminist, the big difference between seduction and rape is that “in seduction, the rapist bothers to buy a bottle of wine.” Many evolutionary biologists would agree. To them any animal seduction is an asymmetric act of more or less forcible persuasion by a very keen seller of sperm, which comes cheap, to a discriminating buyer of impregnation, which involves huge investments of time and energy. The more asymmetric the investment, the harder the male tries. In human being a few minutes’ work by a man can be leveraged into nine months of female gestation. Whether the eager male is rapist, over-persistent seducer or just a husband is to the thorough-going feminist and to the evolutionary biologist of secondary interest.

Despite the nursery rhyme about Jack Sprat and his wife, another disreputable thing men do is to eat both more meat and more fat than women. The habit goes back to the Pleistocene era, when modern human beings emerged in Africa and began to spread to the rest of the world, replacing earlier forms of the species. Among modern hunter-gatherer peoples men catch most of the meat and women gather most of the plant food. Although men share meat with women, they tend to be more carnivorous.

Red meat comes these days with all the wrong cultural labels. Eating it is increasingly treated as cruel, environmentally damaging and unhealthy. Vegetarianism is on the rise, but particularly among women. Encouraged by this trend, many governments are spending large sums of money in health-campaigns devoted to the demonisation of red meat.

Mummy, what are men for?

Men are not, for all that, utter weaklings. Suppose that, under-educated, diseased, sclerotic and unemployed, the hypothetical son of our putative couple has made it to middle age some time in the 2030s. Just as he is thinking about putting his feet on the chair and cracking a can to watch football, the beer stales and the game pales. Unaccountably he finds himself asking, “What is it all about? What has it all been for?” But this familiar midlife twinge has a new, nasty twist. He is struck with existential doubt not just about himself, but about his gender as a whole. And the bond of male solidarity makes the question no easier to face: what are men for?

Biologically, the purpose of sex is still poorly understood. There are animals and plants that get by without one. Dandelions, for example, produce baby dandelions by themselves. Whiptail lizards in the Arizona desert practise virgin birth, though they perform a pseudo-copulation to get themselves in the mood. There is a whole class of animals, the bdelloid rotifers, that, as far as scientists estimate, have not produced a male individual for around 30m years, and they do not just survive, they thrive.

The puzzle is less why sex (and so males) arose, but why it (and they) survive. Suppose, for a moment, sex is already present. You would think it ought to die out, and here is why. Note that by convention, biologists call even asexual creatures that reproduce themselves female. Imagine now a population of asexual females, which pass on all their genes to the next generation; and a population of sexual ones, which mix their genes with males through copulation or some other form of sexual transmission. (This pairing of sexed and unsexed populations is not as bizarre as it sounds: snails of either sort exist side by side in New Zealand.) Suppose each female has two offspring. The asexual ones will pass their genes on to two offspring, each of which will bear two more, and so on. If the sexual females have on average a male and female offspring, only one will reproduce. In other words, the asexual gene pool should grow while the sexual one should soon die out.

But, luckily for men, it survives. There seems to be a point to sexual reproduction that counterbalances this evolutionary pressure towards femininity. And that point may be summed up by saying that once a generation, sex remixes the genes of two individuals. This spins the numbers on the genetic combination lock that seals each cell, which foils parasitic burglars such as worms, bacteria and viruses. As the main exponent of this theory, William Hamilton of Oxford University, puts it: “Sexual species are committed to a free and fair exchange of biotechnology for the exclusion of parasites.” The reason why a defence is needed is that parasites are always trying to unlock cells using the previous generation’s commonest combination.

It may sound like small comfort to a doubt-struck man, to learn that he is in effect the female sex’s health-insurance policy. But having, so to speak, invented males, our female ur-ancestors then used them for other purposes. Most strikingly, many animal species use males as genetic sieves, to sift out the good genes and discard the bad. They do this by equipping males with all sorts of encumbrances and then setting them to work in competition, either beating each other up or risking their lives against predators and parasites.

The end result, as in a deadly jousting tournament, is a lot of dead males and one or two survivors in clear possession of superior genes: thus has the species been “sieved” for the better. Peacocks’ tails and nightingales’ songs are two examples of the accoutrements to these virility tests designed to get most males killed through exhaustion, disease and violence purely so that females can tell which males have the best genes.

A bull elephant seal may look to some like a male chauvinist pig—all force and no child care—but it is actually the victim of evolutionary manipulation by the female sex: to the extent that the bull seal is designed at all, it is meant to die of disease or violence trying, and usually failing, to win one chance of fathering lots of children.

The hormone testosterone, in sum, is the supreme female “invention”. Not only does testosterone make males do dangerous things, such as fight each other or take absurd risks. It also weakens the immune system. Males, we know, are more likely to get diseases. But now we can see the biological reason why. The higher they push their testosterone levels to win fights and seduce females, the greater the risk of disease they run. The biochemical connection is direct.

Men’s secret

Despite everything said so far, there is hope for men. For one thing stands in the way of a world without beer, hamburgers, pot bellies and patriarchy. Men’s fate hangs by a slender thread, perhaps, but thread it is, and one of a scientifically compelling kind: for the moment, sperm is needed. If women did decide to switch to virgin birth by the simple procedure of fusing the genetic nuclei of two eggs instead of a sperm and an egg, it would not actually work. At least it would not work in our species, or for any other higher mammal, though it might work, for example, in a platypus, a kangaroo or a bird.

The experiment has been done in mice. Scientists produced an embryo with a nucleus made from two sperm nuclei; and another embryo with a nucleus made from two egg nuclei. There was a remarkable difference. The all-sperm embryo developed a large and healthy placenta but a slightly deformed and rather small foetus. The all-egg embryo developed a good, healthy foetus but a small and ill-formed placenta: without a good placenta, the foetus soon died.

In other words, the placenta is largely the product of genes inherited from the father—indeed it is full of paternal genes that almost viciously set about exploiting the mother’s body, not trusting the maternal genes to do so selfish a job—and without a placenta the foetus could not develop. So given the present horizons of bio-engineering, sperm remains necessary for successful fertilisation and embryo growth.

But men should not sigh with relief. For a different worry looms: sperm is, or may be, disappearing. Out of the wondrous modern chemical industry flow products that appear to mimic the effects of female hormones and to reduce the sperm counts of men. (Immediately, that is a problem for both sexes; on a longer, more evolutionary scale, it is a deathknell for men.) If you believe the figures, which some scientists hotly contest, the average number of sperm in the average man’s semen is falling so steadily that it “portends the collapse of traditional means of procreation by the middle of the next century”, according to one expert in the field. If that is true, it is serious. Most men spend a lot of time thinking, if that is the word, about “traditional means of procreation”. The speed of decline is disputed. But studies done in Denmark, France and Britain all point in the same direction: fewer sperm per ejaculation each year.

What to blame for falling sperm-counts is hard to pin down. The problem is not that most chemicals are innocent but that so many are guilty. Now scientists have started looking, they are finding scores of chemicals, natural and synthetic, that mimic the effect of female hormones. When given to male rainbow trout to drink, they cause them to start making female proteins called vitellogenins. Put a shoal of male trout downstream from a sewage farm using those chemicals and the fish are likely to start to feminise. Just about any of the common chemicals used in making plastics seems to encourage the production of oestrogen, the female hormone. Pregnant rats fed on low doses of them give birth to male offspring with small testicles and low sperm counts. Nonylphenol, the most potent of the chemicals, first came to light in a (woman’s) laboratory in Boston when some plastic tubes were traced as the source of a mysterious substance that made breast-cancer cells grow in a glass jars.

The case against men

So is Jacques Lang, France’s former culture minister and a fine nose for fashion, right when he claimed—in the title of his recent book—Tomorrow belongs to women? Recall, a moment, how men let the species down. They are proner to disease, dumber at school and more troubled at home than girls. They are more violent, die earlier, and in many walks of life are becoming less and less needed at work. Biologically, males are useful chiefly as a “genetic sieve” for the safer transmission of the genes of the reproducing female. Male sperm, in addition, seems important to the production of the embryo-protecting placenta. But in the longer-run, there are evolutionary question-marks over the need for men to perform the first of those functions and over their capacity to perform the second.

A world of tamed, feminised or vanished men would be a world with less meat, which would reduce pressure on rain forests. It would be a world with less crime, where even the slums of Rio de Janeiro would be safe at night. Pornography would largely disappear. So would rape, classically understood. Children, true, would be brought up in fatherless homes, but the evidence suggests that it is mainly boys who turn bad in such circumstances, not girls.

Nor, as a vision of things to come, need a world without men hold out such terrible fears. Civilisation owes much to men. But creating cultures and technologies is one thing, preserving them another. A sex adapted to the one is not obviously adapted to the other. In the grand sweep of things, the human race may before long have completed its evolution from a warring collection of romantic, male-dominated tribes to a peaceable, cool-headed sisterhood devoted to shopping and household management—those most feminine of arts known nowadays as economics.

(The Economist, December 23, 1995-January 5, 1996)

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