Slower, weaker, wussier? Oh, really? - Macleans.ca

Slower, weaker, wussier? Oh, really?

If there is some standard of masculinity against which prehistoric males win out over us, what’s that standard worth anyway?

by

From the “ongoing evidence of the emasculation of the modern male” file, it was reported last week that men who voted for John McCain saw their testosterone levels fall significantly when they learned he had lost to Barack Obama. That might help explain why wannabe alpha males, led by Brad Pitt and George Clooney, are retreating into “man caves,” playrooms packed with guitars, gym equipment and beer kegs, where they go to pretend they’re still in charge of their own lives, if not the American empire.

Things were already going badly for the male of the species, what with the he-cession and the decline of the manufacturing economy, which have combined to push men to the margins of social and economic life. Now along comes an Australian anthropologist to kick men while we are down, and tell us we are, in fact, “the sorriest cohort of masculine Homo sapiens to ever walk the planet.’’

That’s the verdict of Peter McAllister, in his new book Manthropology: The Science of the Inadequate Modern Male. He argues Usain Bolt would have only been an average runner amongst prehistoric aborigines, while Arnold Schwarzenegger would have lost an arm wrestle to any Neanderthal woman. Worse, McAllister says we’re far less courageous than the Huichol Indian fathers of Mexico, who apparently “tied strings to their testicles so the mothers could pull on them during labour to share the pain.” Slower, weaker, wussier—in the great Olympics of life, that’s apparently the motto of men these days.

I wonder, though, if this is not a case of academic overreach. If there is some standard of masculinity against which prehistoric males win out over today’s dudes, perhaps the obvious retort is, what the heck are those standards worth? To borrow a question Stalin famously asked of the pope: how many divisions did prehistoric man have? Or, to put it in less narrowly militaristic terms: what did prehistoric man ever build?

A friend confessed recently that as he walks around his city, he entertains himself by making note of how much of his surroundings was designed and built by men. (And that’s men in the hairy-chest sense, not the “fellow man” sense.) From office towers to airplanes, cars to consumer electronics, the furniture of the modern world is largely of my gender’s making.

This sounds not just like bragging, but bragging of the most literally chauvinistic sort. There’s even a school of thought that holds that all of this building and making and doing is itself just the modern expression of the most prehistoric of motivations: the male drive to expand one’s power, authority, dominance. In the most popular version of the argument, men do all of this for two reasons: to dominate other men, or for sex. Sublimating the urge in competitive consumerism or weekend-warriorism athletics just underscores the claim that everything we do, we do for status.

Well, here’s a counter-example: Wikipedia. Since it was launched in 2001, the Web-based collaborative encyclopedia has evolved into one of the single greatest intellectual achievements in human history, which, according to the online guru Clay Shirky, represents well over 100 million hours of intellectual effort. Curiously enough, it is effort that is almost all made by men. Not long ago, a survey commissioned by Wikipedia found only 13 per cent of people who contribute to its entries are women—a shocking discrepancy, considering that the percentage of woman and men who use the Internet is now identical.

Set aside that this statistic is going to launch thousands of theses looking at gender bias in Wikipedia, and think of how it undercuts the idea that everything men do is about power. I doubt any man has ever picked up a woman with the line, “hey baby, you seen the entry about Darwin’s theory of evolution? I wrote the first two lines”; instead, thousands of men spend a great deal of their free time beavering away anonymously, for no reward or recognition save the private satisfaction of contributing to a great project.

What we are seeing with Wikipedia—and any number of similar online enterprises—is a sort of natural experiment in the male brain operating in its preferred environment. It is a project that requires a great deal of focus, persistence, and attention to detail, what the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (first cousin of Sacha, of Borat and Ali G fame) calls “systematizing ability.” Men, not exclusively but almost certainly more than women, like to spend a great deal of their time perfecting minuscule tasks, regardless of their immediate practical value.

These same cognitive traits are wildly overrepresented in mathematicians, engineers, and IT professionals, and, when combined with very low levels of empathy and social skills, in people with Asperger’s syndrome and autism. Baron-Cohen actually refers to autism as the expression of the “extreme male brain,” which would explain why there are so many more autistic males than females. It also explains why so much of our built environment is the man-built environment.

The received view is that the modern economy has emasculated us, turning us from ruddy-cheeked, manly men into dweeby cubicle dwellers, daintily tapping away at keyboards or thumbing BlackBerries as we push airy ideas around the Web. But if anything, the opposite seems to be the case. The information age, with its overwhelming bias toward systematic knowledge, does not mark the demise of masculinity, but rather, its deepest expression. And given how clearly beneficial that is for all of humankind, it is hard to see what could be wrong with that.