I read this column in the Globe and Mail this morning and it really got me thinking about gender roles, biology and our limitations as individuals.
Men get a lot of bad rap for being flighty dads, deadbeats, cheaters and so forth. And while many if not most men are not like this millions are. When you look at labor patterns around the world, women do most of the work, while men have most wealth and power. It seems patently unfair.
But is it? Viewing the role of men with modern eyes and Christian ideals it certainly seems so, but you have to look at the whole of the organism over a long period of evolutionary time.
As far as we can tell gender roles in hunter-gatherer societies showed men as hunters and defenders, explorers and warriors, while women maintained social networks, gathered food, procsesed meals and tended young children. Women worked all the time, men worked occasionally but in what could be very dangerous, high-yield work. Obviously this labour division was “functional” in that it seemed to persist over a very long time.
Then came agriculture. Hunting and warring declined and “Home” took on a new much more dominant position. Men’s traditional roles – evolutionary roles – were hugely diminished. Roles that in the past would have been deemed as feminine became all there was available for both sexes.
Human beings are inordinately adaptable and so civilisation moves on. But these deep innate urges still persist, and you see them emerge in situations where socialisation fails to curb them. Some argue that that is the primary role of socialisation – to curb antisocial instinctive impulses.
But if men have evolved to hunt, to defend and to take risks, how does that play out in our modern world? Some examples are quite obvious: modern hunting, sports, warfare, Wall street. These primitive urges have been sublimated towards more social purposes. Sometimes.
Sometimes men kill those that society does not see as enemy. Sometimes men cheat. Sometimes men take little interest in their offspring. And there are times when they have little interest in the sheltered, structured life of breadwinner.
I mentioned that socialisation works to suppress these instincts, but individual characteristics and temperament and biology play a role. Give a woman large doses of testosterone and you will see less nurturing and more aggression. Our endocrine system has itself evolved to promote what we see as certain gender roles. Even in the larger, more muscular male body and smaller, fatter feminine one we see this at work.
So socialisation is really swimming upriver, and it shows just how powerful a force it is that most men stick close to home, act civilised and social, pay bills and actively love their kids.
I’ve seen this play out dramatically in my own life. Biologically, I tend towards the more overtly masculine end of the scale. Maybe an 8 out of 10. Personal history and socialisation has allowed me to develop feminine aspects of my personality, so that in many ways I would appear androgenous – perhaps a 5. My personality is like it has a loudness button: both ends of the spectrum are boosted so that I have strong masculine and feminine characteristics. But the deep, instinctual masculine aspects still dominate and take a lot of work to subsume.
I cannot see an attractive woman without feeling strong, sexual feelings. I loathe structure. I love to wander and explore and take risks. I have very powerful aggressive feelings at times. I had a relationship outside of my marriage. Raising kids in the suburbs, particularly when they were teens, was very, very hard for me.
Note that I did not want any of this. I would prefer to just see the person when I saw a woman. I would much rather be comfortable sticking close to home and being part of a social structure that provides a regular paycheck. I deeply wish I could have been a better father.
The thing is I tried with all of my being to be all these things. I acted the part for most of my adult life, because I believed in it. But it wasn’t who I was.
My own socialisation was deeply flawed in that I was raised in a very dysfunctional home. But it’s more than just that that engendered these impulses. I can feel the difference between personality and instinct; they come from different places inside. And the fact that my own failings as a man and a father are statistically almost banal, shows that there is something more at work than my own personality or socialisation. The fact they they are repeated by millions (if not billions) of men shows a picture of innate behaviour.
That a lot of this is instinct does not diminish the importance in limiting them, and considering them as failings when they do occur. But perhaps it’s important to remember that we are all fallible and that sometimes as men, the modern world fits poorly for what we are and evolved to be.
Personally, my innate drives would be best at loving a lot of women, hanging with my bros, protecting others when required, planning and analysing and taking on dangerous risks for the good of my friends and family, and being rewarded with great status for doing so. I suspect it would be the same for many other men. But that scenario is very different from modern life.
I think if we started changing civilisation to actually harness these impulses for positive outcomes, this would be a better world. But having these drives directed to pro sports, war, capitalism, and suburbia is not only a complete waste, but very dangerous as well.