Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Naked Desmond Morris

Desmond Morris has written yet another book in his "naked" series. The first one was The Naked Ape, many decades ago. The new one is called The Naked Man. Its thesis is that men are smarter than women, more creative than women and that the history of human beings is the history of men. From a review of the book:

Try to name history's top ten women artists, scientists, composers, dictators, heroines or explorers. You can probably trawl your mind and come up with a few examples - especially in those categories involving humane work.

I can think of Marie Curie, Rosamund "DNA" Franklin and the astronomer Jill Tarter (who runs an alien-detection institute and discovered dwarf stars). We've had Boudicca (vanquisher of the Romans) and Margaret Thatcher (who gave the Argentines an equally bloody nose). Also, arguably, our three greatest monarchs have been queens, not kings.

But, by and large, the inescapable conclusion is that the history of humanity is the history of man, not of woman.

For every great woman there have been 100 - even 1,000 - great men in the same field.

This is, of course, a contentious thesis, but a new book by anthropologist Desmond Morris attempts not only to explain why this is so, but also to contest that those reports of the death of masculinity (trumpeted by so many feminist thinkers) have almost certainly been exaggerated.

The Naked Man takes a (perhaps unfashionable) look at the triumph of the human male - and examines the wonder of evolution that is the male body.

Morris's study could not have come at a more opportune time, as the very concept of masculinity is being derided on so many fronts. Male traits such as aggression, singlemindedness, linear-thinking, devotion to facts and love of competition are under attack in today's femininised world.

Today's feminized world? I wonder what color the sky is there, and if they also have wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Anyway, what is so startlingly new and wonderful about Morris's study is the reasons for the immense male superiority. It has to do with hunting by the prehistoric man. The story goes like this:

Next, Morris takes the argument further to explain the dominance of men over women.

Hunting, he argues, was a dangerous, high- octane pursuit. It made little sense for the females to put themselves in harm's way - they were far more valuable to the tribe's future than men because, of course, human survival depended upon their fertility,

So men, who were expendable, went out with the spears while the women stayed behind - a pattern that (minus the spears) has persisted long after our hunter-gatherer days were over.

As a result, the male brain became progressively more adventurous, more aggressive and more cunning.

Morris doesn't bother to explain how the intelligent brain became something that only the men inherited. Neither does he explain what evidence we have of the importance of hunting for the prehistoric tribes (one theory proposes scavenging as the real major activity of those hunters). I have read that the vast majority of the foods of recent hunter-gatherer tribes come from the gathering activity, and that the role of the hunting activity is relatively minor.

Morris does not explain how he knows that hunting was something all males did. It's much more likely that gathering is what all the members of the tribe did, most of the time, and that at least some hunting expeditions used all members of the tribe, too.

In short, we don't have evidence on the kind of division of labor he posits, and neither do we have any evidence of how that wonderful male brain was kept from being passed on to the daughters as well as to the sons if it existed in the first place.

Note also that we have no idea if not going hunting was any safer than going hunting. It might not have been, because we know nothing about the actual living circumstances of those prehistoric humans. We don't even know if the women were left behind or not.

In any case, none of this is the point of the book. The point of the book is that men deserve to dominate over women:

Around 10,000 years ago, the human male was perhaps at the pinnacle of his powers. Totally in command, the alpha-hunter, with a quick mind and an athletic body to match, was the world's most powerful animal, dominant over all other species and over his fellow humans.

How do we know this? Not also that those "fellow humans" means "women."

Then agriculture was invented and the end of the glorious hunter power ended. Who invented agriculture? Of course we have no way of knowing, but if it was so bad for men it must have been invented by women, except that according to Morris women don't invent things. Those poor, puny female brains didn't develop, you see. So it must have been men who invented agriculture. But why did they invent something that ended the glorious era of the chest-thumping hunters?

Perhaps the book tells us that in great detail. Anyway, this is how men coped with the ending of hunting as the supposedly major way of acquiring food:

According to Morris, the solutions were twofold. First, Man invented war. Rival males were treated as prey to be hunted down and killed, much like animals were before them. This, says Morris, "gave the risk-hungry male all the dangers he could dream of, and as weapons became more and more sophisticated, far more dangerous than he had ever envisaged".

If war and sport hunting had become the only two ways in which the male brain could respond to the emasculation brought about by the farming era, then we would truly have been in trouble. But, happily, there is another side to the male brain.

That is its creativity combined with curiosity. The ability to concentrate and cooperate towards a long-term goal, an ability forged in the primeval chase, could be put to good use.

The result was the fascinating development of human society: buildings and roads, technology and art, music and literature, the whole of science and industry.

These are all, Morris argues, great fruits of the human male brain.

He says: "The human male has had the most impact on the planet than any other life form. Women are responsible and men are more playful and it is this playfulness that is our species' greatest achievement."

Even men who are not great scientists or artists can still put their male brains to good use. In the everyday environment of the modern workplace, it is men who tend to be more competitive, put in longer hours, get a bigger thrill out of success and getting one over on their colleagues.

The hunting pack of old even has its echo in modern bonding activities, such as drinking sessions after work and group attendance at football matches.

Equally the male habit of collecting items - from stamps to train numbers - harks back to men bringing home the kill.

That last bit about collecting is something that Simon Baron-Cohen has promoted in his theories about the male and female brains. Too bad that the questionnaire he uses for measuring collecting interest is biased. He never asks if a person collects Barbi dolls or teapots or antique lace, only if a person collects something such as coins or stamps. He also never seems to have gone to a flea market or checked out the membership lists of collectors' clubs. Collecting is a human activity. But once you make up a biased questionnaire and publish its results the other evo-psychos can use your findings as a fact.

Note also that if collecting instincts had anything at all to do with the prehistoric division of labor it should be the women who now collect madly. After all, they were presumably the gatherers.

So women don't bond, I guess. Neither is the work that women have traditionally done seen as one that requires creativity or brains in general. Bringing up children probably just happens, with no need to think hard or to learn to bond or to develop language or psychological skills or skills in medicine or problem solving in general. Only hunting can do that.

You know what is funny? These kinds of stories are a dime a dozen, but responding to all of them, one at a time, is real work. We need some biologists and psychologists and geneticists to get together and write a proper book on the issues.