Of Parrots and Men

Fascinating talk here: Is There Anything Good About Men? regarding differences between men and women.

It’s a long article (from 2007), but well worth reading.

(“Men” used to mean “the human species”. I still have to make a conscious effort to realize that “men” now mean “the male members of the human species” as opposed to women, and that “the human species” is described as “men and women”. Incidentally this expression is still not perfect, because it does not include children: while there are male and female children, children are not “men” or “women”. Anyhow.)

The angle of the talk is that men and women are good at different things:

  • women breed (basically)
  • in order to have a chance at passing their genes, men need to fight for glory — and most fail

The article starts off with two very interesting facts:

  • we’re descended from twice as many different women than men, which means that, on average, in the history of the world, 80% of women reproduced while only 40% of men did
  • on many metrics, including IQ and height, there are more men at the extremes than women: even if the averages are the same, the distribution is flatter for men (there are more idiots and more geniuses amongst men, more giants and more small people)


The article then proceeds to extract many conclusions from those facts, and while it makes for a rich conversation and a very entertaining read, I find it suffers from the same flaw as the rest of the new fancy “evolutionary psychology”: it explains the present with unverifiable assumptions about a very distant past.

The life of the human species as it was tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago is so distant and so unknown that anything can be said about it without much risk of being proved wrong.

Case in point: Genghis Khan. It is an accepted fact, mentioned in the article, that Genghis Khan fathered hundreds, if not thousands of children. When you have conquered most of the known world you probably have lots of opportunities to mate.

So it’s easy to conclude that all men strive to conquer the world in order to have a shot (no pun intended) at fathering many children.

There are many problems with this line of reasonning; let’s illustrate two that are really obvious.

Fisrt, there are counter-examples; of the many “world conquerors” the world has seen, the two most famous, Alexander the Great and Napoleon, are not known to have had an impressive number of offsprings (Alexander had only two children and was possibly gay; Napoleon fathered just one legitimate child and maybe 3-5 illegitimate ones).

Modern examples are even worse: while Mao had maybe ten children, Staline had three, Hilter zero.

Looking at sucessful conquerors (conquerors that succeed in conquering), it’s far from obvious that they are also successful womanizers.

Looking at all conquerors (men that try to conquer, including would-be conquerors) it’s very evident that most fail to mate successfully, either because they fail to conquer or because they die in the process (cf. Alexander who died at 33).

So, conquering does not seem such a great mating strategy: it’s possible that conquerors try their luck in order to impress women when and if they come back; but it seems unlikely that the human species developed a specific “conqueror’s” male trait, if only because there are not enough successful — and prolific — conquerors in the known history of the world for their genes to have had a significant influence!

Incidentally, if conquering was a great mating strategy, there would be conquerors in other species too, at least in mammals. What one can observe is that usually mammals live in herds with one dominant male that mates with all the females in the group: the other males don’t mate at all. They just stay there and accept their fate (or wait for their time to come).

Which brings us to the second problem: there are many alternative strategies for mating.

Rape is one of them. From a mating point of view, it would seem very efficient to rape as many women as possible (as young as possible): there would be a great chance of fathering many children that way.

Short of rape, being a great seducer, or latin lover, or singer is quite effective in getting women. In fact, many more seducers are artists or sports athletes (hello, Tiger!!) than politicians or warriors.

Still, some men can’t sing (or run). Why is that??

The idea that “any traits that help to mate become so dominant that they come to definethe population” fails to explain why aren’t we all rapists, or great dancers?

Climbing Parrots

I saw parrots in a zoo last year. They were in a big cage (maybe 20x20 feet). In the next cage were monkeys.

Parrots can fly, of course, and do fly to go from tree to tree; but to go from branch to branch, or to climb the side of the wire cage they use their beak. They catch the upper wire or upper branch with their beak, swing and lift their whole body with their neck, and put their legs on the next wire/branch.

They can cover quite a distance this way: from the bottom to the top of the cage, or one side to the other. Go watch them sometime. (This is the only video that I could find on the web, and it’s not very good, but still it shows what I’m talking about. Parrots are not alone in this BTW: many other birds do the same).

No monkey ever uses their mouth to climb. They don’t have to: they have arms (and hands, feet, and tail).

The Point

My point is: we use what we can to get where we want to go.

The supreme goal of an individual is to pass their genes to the next generation; and men and women are dealt a different hand. Men don’t really have to support the cost of breeding, so they can mate as much as possible, and therefore, quantity matters most. Women have to bear the feotus in the womb, can carry only one at a time, and then have to take care of it (in the “wild”, by breast-feeding it). So for women, the quality of the mate is paramount; a wrong choice is very expensive to them.

What women look for in a mate are:

  1. good genes (so that the offsprings will live)
  2. a good provider (so that the offsprings will have enough ressources to survive)

(What men look for in a mate is “yes”).

The above is obvious; but where do we go from there?

Well, some people who can sing, sing: either men or women. In order to attract the best mates, women try to show they have good genes(long blond hair, white teeth, big breasts) or cheat (fake hair color, fake teeth, fake breasts).

Men try to signal to potential mates that they are a safe bet: they show off with money, cars, diplomas, etc. (and of course they show off their good genes when they can). And they don’t need to have the “most” of anything (money or wits or whatever): they just need to have enough, or to have the most amongst their (available) peers.

Certainly, the sucessful strategies (that’s a plural) help pass the genes of their proponents; but to say that men evolved specific traits in order to get women is stretching it beyond what’s reasonable.

Contrary to what the article seems to assume, men and women are not distinct species or even distinct groups (in the article, they are compared to different populations, such as Africans vs. Europeans); men and women evolved together. Mothers pass genes to their sons, fathers pass genes to their daughters!

I believe the truth is simpler and short of spectacular:

  • individuals (of all species) want to mate
  • in mammals, males and females are anatomically and biologically different (and fixed — in many species individuals can change genders)
  • (therefore) males and females look for different qualities in a potential mate
  • (therefore, knowing this) males and females show off different aspects in order to attract mates
  • and, just as parrots who use their beaks to climb trees, people use what they have to achieve their goals.

In other words, I believe that the behavior of men and women:

  • differs in fact much less than “gender studies” would like us to believe
  • inasmuch as it differs, is for the most part a result of their situation as a man or a woman: it’s less part of their “nature” as a man or a woman, than an accidentalconsequence of their gender and what they need to do to succeed

Is this testable?

A way to test this theory would be to observe individuals as they change genders and see if their behavior changes accordingly; in humans this is difficult because:

  • the sample is small
  • people who change genders don’t really: sometimes they go as far as changing the appearance of their external sexual organs, but not more (males who become “females” don’t gain the ability to bear children)
  • people who change genders didn’t feel quite at home in their former self: they started in the wrong gender, and therefore probably did not exhibit the characteristic behavior of this gender

But in species where individuals change genders as a response to external pressures, it would be fascinating to know how this impacts their mating behavior.

Thu, 26 Aug 2010 • permalink