Friday, 13 June 2008
Being a Man
Human males have yet to evolve flesh-eating sperm like some animals, but their biological imperative for sex has made them into the creatures they are today.
By T. C. Flory
The animal kingdom is crawling with kink: threesomes, sadomasochism, spontaneous sex changes, and coital decapitation, for starters. There are also male ducks with corkscrew-shaped penises and sea creatures that shoot acidic semen leaving their partner pregnant and covered in burns. Nature even has its own date rape drug: the Great Barrier Reef's yellow slug delivers a sedative to its desired mate with a quick penile stab.
It's all in the name of successfully passing along genes -- much like these creatures' human counterparts. The male of our species has yet to evolve flesh-eating sperm, but their biological imperative to sow their seeds has led to similarly mind-boggling behavior, like paying $2,150 for seduction seminars. Faye Flam, a science reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, charts this carnal quest in "The Score: How the Quest for Sex Has Shaped the Modern Man," and details the trade-off experienced by most males: They invest less than females in reproduction, but pay for it (among humans, sometimes literally) by working harder to have sex in the first place. After all, some male mammals need only ejaculate, while the female is responsible for gestation and nursing.
In addition to engaging in pop-culture discussions (like Christopher Hitchens' assertion that women aren't funny) and scientific meditations, Flam also infiltrates a pickup artist's boot camp, tours the world's only penis museum (Iceland's Institute of Phallology), and grills experts on the sex lives of our Stone Age ancestors. There's very little that escapes her survey of men's sexual selves, including pornography, monogamy, parenting and homosexuality.
We spoke with Flam by phone from her desk in the Philadelphia Inquirer's newsroom.
In your book, you mention the idea that everybody -- including animals -- wants to be the male when it comes to sex. Why is that?
It has to do with a couple of common male traits that run through the whole biological world. One of them is that the sperm are smaller than the egg and for most male animals that translates into not having to invest as much energy or work into the babies. Everybody wants to do less work. It's a universal laziness.
You really only have a chance to see that sexual choice play out in these crazy sea worms that can be either male or female. Before they have sex, they fight it out, and the winner always plays the male role. Most other animals don't get the chance to fight for the right to be the male during reproduction.
There are a few animals that turn the tables and the female sticks the male with all the work. More often than not, though, the females not only have to either incubate the babies or create the eggs, but they also end up stuck with more of the work. The males can pass on their genes without investing quite as much.
What about the question of pleasure. Does that play into the male sexual advantage?
It's hard to say what is going on in animals' heads when they're having sex. Who knows whether it's any more pleasurable for these sea worms -- if they feel any pleasure -- to be the male during sex, and that's why they fight over the position or whether it's just an instinct.
One of the funny things about sex is that we have an urge to do it, we want it, but it doesn't always turn out that well. You can chase and chase after someone, but it doesn't necessarily mean the sex will be particularly pleasurable. That may be something that's going on with a lot of men. But they chase it anyway.
Your book mentions the idea that sexual anticipation, rather than realization, might give us greater pleasure.
They're doing a lot of research in an area called neuro-economics where they're looking at what really gives people pleasure and why we spend our money the way we do. Apparently, an animal's brain really reacts and the pleasure centers turn on during the period when he's anticipating a reward, not when he actually gets it. That's a growing area of research right now and it applies well to sex.
Pickup artist Mystery's "Venusian Arts" -- which you point out should technically be called "Venereal Arts" -- loom large in your book. Does it have a biological basis?
The pickup artists illustrate a couple of things really well. First, they illustrate the idea that because males invest less in offspring, their success in evolutionary terms is more tenuous. Males are more likely to get completely frozen out of reproduction. So they are likely to end up evolving to chase after sex in a way that females might not. The pickup artists illustrate the way that men are likely to invest a lot of their money and time in going after plain old sex.
Second, there were some things they did that psychologists believe might really work -- and they would probably work for females, too, in some cases. Their concept of playing hard to get was tested in a lab. There was a speed-dating setup in which people pretty successfully guessed how picky their opposite-sex counterparts were. The participants they liked the most were the ones they thought were the pickiest. So, projecting that you're picky could actually be helpful.
The pickup artists also attempt to play on people's tendencies to copy each other. They would show up somewhere with a lot of female friends, so that women would look at them and think, "Wow, he must be popular. Those women must see something in him." That's also something that works on some animals. A researcher actually surrounded male birds with fake female birds, and the real females went for the males surrounded by decoys. The females were attuned to thinking they had to have what everybody else wanted.
You mention some people's desire to return to the "simple" days of hunting and gathering, when men and women had strict sex roles. How accurate is this popular perception of those times?
I had a long interview with an archaeologist, James Adovasio, who co-wrote a book on the topic called "The Invisible Sex." He exploded all of these myths. From what we know from archaeological records, and modern people that hunt and gather, women were pretty independent. They could get fish, small animals and plants on their own. They really weren't dependent on men -- at least to eat, anyway. The idea that somehow in the old days the men's hunting was so terribly important is a myth. Our picture of prehistoric man was built up during the late 1800s, so it was a reflection of what men thought life should be more than what it really was.
That opens the way for a lot of interesting evolutionary forces. If women aren't dependent on men then they can afford to be picky, they can decide to only mate with the men who are skilled singers, attractive or good fathers. It puts men under an evolutionary pressure of a different kind.
It's a commonly made assertion that testosterone is "poison." How has that idea been challenged?
I traced the term "testosterone poisoning" to Alan Alda, of all people. He used it in an article for Ms. magazine and it really caught on. Subsequent research suggests testosterone simply needs to be balanced. If you shoot yourself up with lots of testosterone, that's probably going to really hurt your health, but if your testosterone gets too low, it can also be associated with health problems and depression. It looks like there is a healthy amount for men.
The level of testosterone a man has ebbs and flows over the course of the day and his lifetime.
Speaking of testosterone, why did risk-taking evolve in men?
That's the subject of a lot of speculation in evolutionary psychology. A lot of it comes down to showing-off behavior. It's a peacock type behavior -- among peacocks, the male with the best tail gets all the females. It's possible that over the long history of humanity men who did incredibly risky things and survived would be like the peacock with the best tail. They would be the heroes, whether it was for beating up someone from an enemy group or hunting a dangerous animal.
Males are under more evolutionary pressure than women to stand out from the crowd. Every study shows that men are more likely to do risky things of all kinds. Women simply have a little more common sense when it comes to drinking, driving, guns -- that sort of thing.
What are we to make of the fact that the Y chromosome is actually shrinking?
I've talked at great length to the first scientist to propose that the Y chromosome was shrinking, and she was shocked that people got so up in arms about it. It would take millions of years or maybe hundreds of thousands of years for it to completely disappear -- in any case, it won't cause males to go extinct. We know of two other mammals that have actually lost their Y chromosome and, somehow, they keep making males and females. Scientists aren't sure what they're doing, but there must be some new genetic switch that creates males.
Do alpha males exist in human society as they do in the animal world?
In animals like gorillas and chimpanzees and dogs, it's much more clear-cut -- the alpha male has to beat everybody else up. Then he gets access to all the females. You can see similar stuff happening with humans, but instead of the tough guys, it's the artists, rock stars and actors who get all the attention.
Some animals have alpha females, but it's not too common. The bonobos, one of our closest relatives, have alpha females. They're actually more powerful than the males. The females dominate the whole group.
What inspires monogamy and fatherly behavior in animals?
It can have something to do with how much care the offspring actually need. If you're a male bird and all of your offspring are going to die if you don't take care of them, then your genes will not pass on to the next generation. You will be a Darwinian failure. In that case, only males who stick around to help will manage to pass on their genes.
In some cases, like in some fish, the females just abandon the eggs, and if the male doesn't take care of them, they won't survive. Sometimes the female turns the tables.
And humans are somewhere in the middle when it comes to sex and commitment?
Currently, yes. There's a lot of monogamy and paternal care, but we're not quite as monogamous as birds and some other animals. Women can have sex, have babies and get by without a man. Monogamy depends a lot on social groups and whether you have help in raising offspring. Humans are so flexible. There are ways women can work around the need for fatherly care.
In a lot of groups, there is serial monogamy. In a lot of cultures around the world it's pretty common that people go through a couple relationships in their lifetime. People can be monogamous but not mate for life.
You raise the possibility that DNA paternity testing and contraceptives could, respectively, change men and women's sexual drives. Can you explain that?
It goes back to the common themes that run through males and females. One of those is the uncertainty of paternity: Females know which baby is theirs, males don't necessarily. Paternity testing might make men more afraid of certain types of sex, like sex with women they would like to never see again. It might not make them less interested in sex, but rather more circumspect about whom they have sex with.
On the other hand, it could be that women have traditionally been more circumspect about sex because, until more recently, ending up pregnant was an ever-present possibility. Birth control takes away some of the risk.
What might cloning and artificial insemination mean for men's and women's sex drives?
Both would probably have a similar effect in that they would amplify men's perceived risk of not having any kids. It might make their evolutionary existence even more tenuous. Women could have reproductive independence. A man can't use cloning to have a baby but women could, in theory.
It seems it could make men even more competitive. I think it makes men insecure, the idea that in the future they could be left out of the equation completely.
This article originally appeared on Salon.