Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Dangerous Strategy

A month or so ago, I referred to men as the “expendable” sex, describing them as essentially reckless, fragile, and potentially dangerous. We are. And we’ve created a lot of problems. Wouldn’t the world be a better place without all these lethal, testosterone-filled humans ruining everything? Yes, I can almost feel female readers giving this possibility some serious consideration. But seriously, why would nature give rise to such a destructive organism in the first place?

Dissident feminist Camille Paglia once quipped “If civilization had been left in female hands we would still be living in grass huts.” This probably seems a bit harsh if you’re a member of the fairer sex, but as with many hyperboles, there’s an underlying element of truth. For good and for ill, men have invented much of the technology that provides the “creature comforts” we now take for granted.

What about women? Yes, women have invented many things, including the modern window frame, Kevlar, windscreen wipers, the automatic drip coffee maker, the first successful anti-herpes drug, and anti-dandruff shampoo, among other things. And women would no doubt have invented many more things if given equal opportunity to do so over the years. But it is a simple empirical fact that most of the technological innovations that changed the course of humanity were invented by men. As I teach my students, necessity isn’t the mother of invention so much as curiosity is the father of invention.

There are downsides to all these male inventions to be sure. Global warming, nuclear warfare, pollution, industrial disasters, plane crashes, automobile accidents, acid rain, and a punctured ozone layer spring to mind immediately. But let’s be honest, how long do you think you would last in the world circa, say, 1761, before all this technology so obviously ruined the planet? My guess is that many of us would find human existence 250 years ago to be a brutal struggle for survival rather than a chance to live in a pristine, peaceful, utopia uncontaminated by the evil inventions of mankind. On balance, I’ll take the creature comforts and figure out what to do about global warming later.

Indeed, everything about the male character suggests an orientation to explore and modify the environment for the better, albeit from a very short-term perspective. Men, more than women, believe they can master or control their destiny. They are more likely to pursue careers in science, math, technology, and other professions related to mastery over nature. Men will persist in trying to master a difficult task longer than women, and no I’m not just talking about computer games.

Many feminists have argued that none of this is natural; that these kinds of gender differences reflect socialized gender roles rather than any inherently male characteristic. But many of these same underlying patterns can be observed in infants and non-human species. Separate an infant girl from her mother with a glass barrier and she will sit and cry, but a baby boy will crawl to both edges of the barrier and bang on the glass to see if there is a way through. She accepts her unfavourable environment; he struggles against his to try to improve it.

Some species enjoy the advantage of the genetic shuffle provided by sexual reproduction (males and females), while also having access to asexual reproduction at other times. This ability to switch back and forth, called heterogamy, offers a glimpse of some of the benefits males bring to the table. When the environment is stable, asexual reproduction tends to dominate as it allows for very efficient reproduction. Each new organism is an exact replica of its parent, a preety good strategy if that parent has experienced a hospitable environment. However, when the environment changes and becomes potentially lethal, via predation, a lack of food, or a sudden climate change, sexual reproduction abounds, and a need for males arises.

The hydra reproduces asexually when conditions are good. When conditions are bad due to lack of food or an unusually cold winter, then some hydra begin to reproduce sexually. One hydra will develop egg-cells which can be combined with the sperm-cells of another hydra. The hydra interestingly is a hermaphrodite. That means it can be produce male gametes or female gametes or even both. But the male gametes are produced fundamentally when the organism needs to change in response to a hostile environment.

In other species, the emergence of males in tough times is even clearer. Consider aphids, the nasty little green bugs that generally ruin gardens all over the world. During the summer, when the temperature is hospitable, and the food supply abundant, asexual reproduction by females, called parthenogenesis, dominates resulting in a population of all female bugs. However, when autumn rolls around, and the temperature drops and the food supply becomes sparse, our little insect heroes switch to good old fashioned sex. Males start popping up all over the place and mate like mad. The resulting fertilized eggs are better able to survive the harsh winter, until the weather warms, the food supply replenishes, and the aphids begin reproducing asexually once again.

Males are needed when times are tough because sexual reproduction changes the organism to increase survival chances in tough times. Sexual reproduction creates better “survival machines” for potentially lethal environments. Does the human version of maleness, with its frontal lobes, opposing digits, and ability to traverse large distances, react to adversity by changing the environment as well as the organism; and does the emergence of global warming, nuclear warfare, pollution, industrial disasters, etc., suggest that men have gone too far?

In a 2005 interview, Maureen Dowd, New York Times columnist and best-selling author of Are Men Necessary?, read a letter from a man asking that, if indeed men are no longer necessary would the fairer sex be willing to give back and do without all the innovations created by men? She then read his list of male accomplishments, which included physics, the Renaissance, the theory of relativity, the personal computer, the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar”, and Beethoven.

Perhaps Ms. Dowd’s answer to the letter should have been “No, you men may not take your innovations with you. Your very purpose was to create a more livable human environment. Now that you’ve done that, you are free to die out. And by the way, some of your more recent inventions (A-bombs, H-bombs, ICBMs, etc.) no longer strike us women as creating a more livable environment, so we’re going to invent feminism to limit your access to these dangerous toys.”

Can women survive without men? If the world is stable, the answer is almost certainly “yes”. If females continued to create a more stable, livable environment after males have long since passed, then gene shuffling would become irrelevant, even detrimental. Instead, the perfect female would simply be “cloned” over and over via parthenogenesis – a world of identical Eves. But if the world gets nasty, women will once again turn to men. Not in the figurative sense of turning to men for protection or help. Women will literally turn (in)to men.


  1. Interesting article, but again I think you're missing some important information! I'm not sure why you would think that women could survive without men in a stable environment. This may be true of some insects like aphids, for example, but you cannot just generalize casually from one species to the next, anymore than you could assume men could gestate young because pipefish males do. Another critical benefit of sex is DNA repair and the reshuffling starves off genetic degradation. Human DNA degenerates when it is cloned (the Y chromosome is a good example of this), so even in a stable environment cloning would be a disaster for our species. Not to mention that imprinting of paternal genes makes asexuality in mammals an impossibility. In mammals, we can be sure that males are pretty much naturally indispensable. Of course, new technology of gene combination between two individuals might, in the distant future, render single-sex procreation possible, but it could also be the case that embryos are gestated in artificial incubation devices, which could mean you wouldn't need either sex. But given the nature of human DNA, gene-shuffling for us will never become irrelevant.

  2. Hi Stacy,

    Thanks for the great comment. I remember you from an earlier post.

    Yes, I've left quite a lot out actually. I think the main point of misunderstanding is the time frame I had in mind, and my misuse of "men" rather than the more generic notion of "male".

    For humans, as we now know them, I accept all your points. I was referring to sexual reproduction as being an evolutionary innovation relative to asexual reproduction, and pointing to general environmental conditions that would confer an advantage to the former over the latter.

    As a species, humans are stuck with meiosis. And no I do not want to consider any of the medical/technogical innovations that would change this - at least not right now anyway.

    Any of the issues I'm discussing would occur so far into the future, that the species involved would no longer be considered "humans" or even "mammals". And the phrase "a world of identical Eves" was, of course, more literary than scientific.

  3. Charles, thanks for the clarification.

    My perspective is this: I just see evolution as something that 'just happens' without purpose or goals. When a biologist talks about 'purpose', he uses it as a shorthand. We just happen to have two sexes, and regardless of how it got that way, in our species successful reproduction and survival requires each. So we just have to deal with it, as it's likely going to stay that way for the foreseeable future. Men and women thus have different adaptations to deal with their respective reproductive strategies, some are different and some are similar. The sexes are of course different, but not so much that one can be ranked above the other or considered superior. It is a nonsensical comparison.. So much time and energy has been wasted on this stupid "war" between the sexes. It is a war that no one can win. It's like right foot declaring war on the left foot -- its just stupid. Anyway, I enjoy your blog and you always make intelligent and though-provoking points!

  4. "The sexes are of course different, but not so much that one can be ranked above the other or considered superior. It is a nonsensical comparison.. So much time and energy has been wasted on this stupid "war" between the sexes. It is a war that no one can win."

    On that topic we agree completely! Sort of why I started this blog in the first place.