The Scientific Fundamentalist
Are men scum?
Are men scum?
Posted Nov 27, 2008
Faye Flam is a science writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, known for her popular sex column “Carnal Knowledge.” She possesses two things that I strongly envy: a Caltech education, and an appearance on Red Eye w/ Greg Gutfeld on Fox News Channel. She has also been nominated for a little award called the Pulitzer, but I don’t envy that as much.
The bulk of the book is about the fascinating world of sexual reproduction and male behavior in different species in nature, which Flam uncovers through her conversations with a large number of scientists throughout the world, including many leading evolutionary psychologists (David M. Buss, Daniel Kruger, Robert Kurzban, Geoffrey F. Miller, Daniel Nettle, Steven Pinker, and Todd K. Shackelford) as well as my fellow PT blogger Paul Eastwick. (I too spoke with her a year ago when she called me to talk about my work while she was finishing the book, but apparently I was not good enough to make it into the book!) While Flam occasionally talks about men’s behavior, the most fascinating part of the book is the behavior of the males of various nonhuman species.
Not only is The Score a highly entertaining and titillating book, it is scientifically rigorous and informative, and I have learned a great deal from it. For example, it dispels some old misconceptions, such as that the female is the “default sex” which results when the fetus does not receive sufficient testosterone to turn it into a male (and that is why males have nipples). Citing her conversation with the Stanford primatologist Robert Sapolsky, Flam also questions the notion that there are “alpha males” among humans or even that there are clear status hierarchies among men. “We humans tend to belong to multiple social circles. The guy who empties the trash for a big corporation might be a star DJ at night or dominate the company softball team” (p. 132). If there are indeed no clear status hierarchies among humans, I wonder what it means for some evolutionary psychological theories – such as the Trivers-Willard hypothesis – which rely on status as a crucial explanatory variable.
One of the most fascinating parts of the book is about hermaphroditism, and why more species are not hermaphroditic. Flam notes that, even when two hermaphrodites – each with the ability to produce eggs and sperm – mate, both try to mate as the male and force the other to be the female, because sperm is cheaper to produce than eggs. In Flam’s words, “Everybody wants to be the male.” In other words, because of anisogamy (the fact that the egg is larger and biologically more expensive to produce than the sperm), the male is by definition a freerider in any (diploid) sexual reproduction. The book has piqued my interest in hermaphroditism and the necessity and evolution of the sexes – the male and the female – as mutually exclusive entities.
The title of the post (“Are men scum?”) is one of the questions that Flam pursues in the book, as well as one of the chapter titles. Unfortunately, Flam’s undeniable answer in her tour-de-force survey of the male behavior in nature is: yes, men are scum, except for her own boyfriend. If you are interested in how evolutionary forces and sexual selection shape the males of a wide range of species (including our own), I would highly recommend Faye Flam’s The Score (but only after you read Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters).
P.S. Faye reminds me that I may have misrepresented her views on men in general. At the time I wrote the review of her book above, it was my impression, after having read the whole book, that her “undeniable answer” to the question “Are men scum?” was “yes, except for her own boyfriend.” But she points out to me that she in fact answers her own question clearly in the negative on p. 114. This is what she says:
Therefore, if you define slime (or scum) by promiscuity, then some men are and some men are not, and therefore the answer to the question “Are men scum?” is no.
I guess my impression of the whole book was unduly shaped by her description of some men who are promiscuous (as well as my general reading of evolutionary psychological studies), but I do not want to attribute a view to Faye that she does not in fact hold. I guess Faye’s glass is half full whereas mine is half empty. She stands by her assertion that her boyfriend is not scum, however.