Book Review: Is There Anything Good About Men?

Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men.
By Roy F. Baumeister. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. www.oup.com.
$24.95. 306 pages. Review by J. Steven Svoboda

Florida State University psychology professor Roy F. Baumeister has published an excellent, even stunning book that answers the title question, “Is there anything good about men?” with a resounding yes. To explain “why men have dominated culture and ruled the world,” the author writes, “[C]ulture grew out of the way the men related to each other, more than out of women’s relationships…. Because culture grew out of men’s relationships—including competition, trading and communicating with strangers, and ample doses of violence—men were always in charge of it.”

Ever the optimist, Baumeister believes “that the hostility between the sexes has been overstated.” He points out that “women got the vote because a majority of men, only men, voted to extend the vote to women.” In one deft paragraph, the author summarizes Warren Farrell’s outstanding book Why Men Earn More and demolishes feminist suggestions that oppression explains the gender salary gap.

The take home for the author is, “If we want to understand gender and culture, we need to have our eyes open to how culture exploits men as well as women.” Following in the tracks of Farrell, he ticks off several disadvantages of masculinity—greater likelihood of criminal sentencing and longer sentences, higher levels of homelessness, 92% of workplace deaths happen to men, and of course the male-only conscription systems in place around the world.

Baumeister reminds us of the reasons why men seem to be more expendable in these ways to society: men are in fact literally more expendable, in that “culture needs only a few men but as many women as possible” due to their biologically different roles in producing the next generation. Not only are there more men in the bottom rungs of society as well as the top rungs, but, the author notes, “The two are related. Society uses men and women differently.”

While often tracking the work of Farrell and others that came before, there is also much new thinking here. The author delves into two numerical measures often used to compare men and women—grade point averages and salaries—and shows us that one critical difference is that salaries are unlimited whereas GPA’s have a firm upper limit. This is important because top-achieving men will pull up the average salary but a similar effect cannot occur with grade point averages, in which women top men. Baumeister notes the unfairness in reigning interpretations of these two statistics. “It is common to infer from women’s better grades that women are better students and perhaps even smarter than the men. Meanwhile, the higher earning power of men is not taken to mean that men are better workers than women.”

Things really start to get interesting when the author discusses why men excel in jazz music. The author hypothesizes, reasonably in my opinion, that there is probably not a large gender difference in creativity or in musical talent. The difference is that a single-minded drive for success—a product of centuries of evolution–is incomparably more often present in the male. Later we learn that the vast gender differences in numbers of patent applications, which as a patent lawyer I have personally experienced, similarly reflect the motivational differences between men and women. Men “far exceed women in their desire to make a mark in a large social system.”

Another enthralling section and another topic I don’t remember previously encountering involves ancestry and starts with a deceptively simple question: what percentage of our ancestors were male? It turns out the answer, due to the phenomenon of alpha males siring most children while virtually all fertile females give birth, is about 33%. “Of all humans ever born, most women became mothers, but most men did not become fathers…. I consider it the single most underappreciated fact about the differences between men and women.”

This also goes a long way, the author shows, toward explaining the phenomenon of men being more willing to take risks: “Women who sailed off into unknown parts… might drown or be eaten by cannibals or succumb to strange new diseases. Instead, stay home and act like the rest of the women, and you will get to have your babies. But for men the calculus was different….[S]taying at home for them also meant losing. Some men did come back from their travels rich enough to improve their chances of getting a wife or two and supporting a pack of youngsters.” Or to put it even more bluntly, “It is simply impossible for a woman to have a hundred babies. It is possible for a man, and some men have done it.”

Another fascinating insight follows. Men are often seen as inferior for their constant competitiveness. “But that is what it means to be male…. The men who didn’t care about outdoing other men… did not reproduce. The men who pushed ahead were more likely to reproduce, and today’s men are descended from them. To leave offspring, you had to outdo other men.”

The author addresses another perplexing issue, provocatively opining that “women are generally more lovable than men.” Baumeister has an explanation as to why this is. “Men would like to be lovable, but they have other priorities, like competing against other men and striving for greatness.” Women excel in one on one or small group interactions involving intimacy and emotions, while men do better in larger, worldly spheres involving a greater number of diffuse connections to more people.

Baumeister is to be congratulated for flatly declaring that women commit the majority of domestic violence, but “women don’t hit strangers. That’s where the big gender difference in aggression is to be found.” And why is that? Again the author both intrigues and seems to hit the truth, writing: “Women care about what intimate partners think, and so they will fight there. Men will too. Women don’t care as much about what strangers or distant acquaintances think, and so they won’t fight them. Men care, and men will fight them.” Even more intriguingly, in the broader sphere of weaker social relationships among a larger group, men are both more aggressive and more helpful!

Inside many of our heads there may be a voice that asks, “Which is better?” The author does his best to put that voice to rest forever, noting that the answer totally depends on what the need at hand is: “The female style builds a few strong, close social bonds. The male style builds many weaker ones. Do you want a loving marriage with strong family ties? Then you need the female style. Do you want a work group like a ship’s crew or a hunting group or a soccer team? Then the male style will work better.”

The author goes on to brilliantly show that typical male communication styles are better adapted for the larger settings in which men specialize, while female communication is adapted for the more intimate settings on which they tend to focus. In a memorable passage, he asks us to “imagine a football coach saying, ‘Do you think maybe we could please try a screen pass here?… We don’t have to do it if anybody doesn’t feel good about it. I just thought it was something we maybe could consider….”

The author refutes the hoary old belief that culture is biased against women. It is true, Baumeister adds, that “culture… was made by men, for men.” This is natural because “[c]ulture emerged from groups of men competing against other groups of men.”

As a specific example of male disposability, Baumeister tells the chilling, utterly amazing story of how, after a long series of miraculous, nightmarish, courageous acts, his father became one of seven out of 150 German schoolboys from his military squad who survived World War II.

The tendency of males to be more extreme than females, both for better and worse, is explained, as the author puts it, by the fact that, “You can think of extreme traits as experiments…. Most experiments will be failures.” Men are more suited to be nature’s guinea pigs because “the experiment ends right away if it is done on the male [because there are no descendants of that male]” while, “It’s hard to weed out bad traits in the females, because most of the women reproduce.” In short, “Nature rolls the die more aggressively with males than females, because it is easier to capitalize on wins and cut the losses.”

As a logical corollary, manhood—unlike womanhood–must be earned and is permanently insecure. “It is… useful for a cultural system to maintain an environment in which there is not enough respect to go around, so that the men remain hungry for it, and must fight hard for it.”

Baumeister pens the following fabulous sentence as a sort of summary of his book’s thesis: “The remarkable rise of the American society, from a baker’s dozen of bedraggled backwater farming colonies into the world’s greatest economic, military, and scientific power, owes much to the wide-open competitive opportunities for fame and riches that seduced countless men into giving it their best shot.” In short, “America became great because America found a new way of getting the most from its men.”

Toward the end of the book we get into some politically incorrect issues that are all too rarely discussed. “Women, perhaps especially thoughtful women, simply cannot fathom the strength of the male sex drive—and the ache of sexual frustration that pervades so many hours of a man’s life.” Again this is no accident. “Nature saw no point in letting men be happy with the sex they’ve already had. Over the ages, the male population descended from the most insatiable ones, who continued to pursue every opportunity for sex and who spent their lives trying to rise to the top of the social hierarchy so they could have more sex.”

Doubling around to again answer the question posed by the book’s title, the author notes that men’s achievements are valued more than men are valued. “One irony we have seen is that culture values men’s activities more than women’s but treats individual men as more expendable than women…. Being expendable is part of what makes men more useful to culture.”

In conclusion the author asks some very hard questions about the path of socially engineered gender equity on which we are embarked, which may lead us to “make men feel guilty rather than proud of many of their greatest achievements.” Baumeister asks with evident trepidation: “Can we reasonably expect that these next generations of men will continue to solve society’s problems, even as our society pressures them to step aside and let women and a few favored minority groups take all the leadership positions they want?… Can we expect them to continue doing the crucial and sometimes dangerous tasks that society needs somebody to do but that somehow women mostly don’t do, even as we tell the men that everyone is equally valuable?”

In the end, we may view these social trends as dangers on a par with our current environmental crises. “If our society does succeed in eliminating both the privileges and the obligations of manhood, it will be embarking on a remarkable social experiment.” Skip reading this book at your peril! A unique experience that deserves the highest possible recommendation.