I generally don’t like to get involved in these “which-sex-is-the-best” debates, but here’s a case where I’ll have to make an exception. Last week the New York Times ran an op-ed entitled, “Men: Who Needs Them?” It was written — wouldn’t you know? — by a man, a professor at Boise State. Since this article questions the very existence of people like myself and since it is filled with such misinformation and errors as might imperil the future of human society, I feel compelled to respond.
The author is one Greg Hampikian, professor of both biology and criminal justice in yet another cloistered academic community where anything can happen to a man’s brain. Hampikian puts forth the premise that since men play only a very brief role in the physical conception of a new individual, and since from there until birth the burden of reproduction is carried entirely by the mother, therefore men — or just about all men — could be eliminated from the earth with little or no consequence. Here is the way he puts it:
If a woman wants to have a baby without a man, she just needs to secure sperm (fresh or frozen) from a donor (living or dead). The only technology the self-impregnating woman needs is a straw and a turkey baster…. If all the men on earth died today, the species could continue on frozen sperm. If the women disappeared, it’s extinction.
Ultimately, the question is, does “mankind” really need men?
So intent is Professor Hampikian on this self-abnegation that he proclaims the term “Homo sapiens” represents only an “18th century masculine bias in science” and that “mankind” is a “gross misnomer.” He prefers “mammals,” since the term refers specifically to the mammary glands, possessed only by women.
Somehow Professor Hampikian’s lack of confidence in the male role is strangely reminiscent of those men in primitive tribes who are said to live in supernatural awe of women’s reproductive powers. It is often speculated that the Stone Age “Venuses,” those small female statues with prominently exaggerated hips and reproductive organs, were amulets whereby men sought to control women’s mysterious procreative abilities. I’ve always thought they might be just Stone Age pornography, but who knows? — maybe it amounts to the same thing.
In any case, since Professor Hampikian is a biologist and presumably believes in evolution, maybe we can use a little evolutionary biology to shore up his self-esteem.
Let’s start with a simple observation. Biologists have recently determined that when it comes to genetic structure, we differ from our chimpanzee cousins by only 3 percent of our genes. That means, if you believe in evolution, that there is very little distance between ourselves and the chimps. In the 5 million years or so since we branched off, only a few minor changes have occurred to separate the two species.
Now here’s the interesting part. Of that 3 percent of changes, 95 percent have taken place on the Y chromosome. That’s the chromosome carried only by men — the only thing in fact that differentiates men and women. In other words, pretty much all the things that have happened to separate us from our chimpanzee ancestors have been things that happened to men. Does that make the term “”mankind” sound a little more appropriate?
Actually, to anthropologists, this isn’t anything new. For decades, they have noted that, in terms of reproductive behavior, female chimpanzee and human females are not very different. Both become pregnant, nurture the fertilized egg in the womb, give birth, nurse their offspring, and then carry them around and protect them for about five years until the young are ready to venture out on their own. In behavioral terms, there’s not much any difference.
What is different about human beings is the behavior of men. Male chimps band together in “brotherhoods” that are often compared to tight-knit fraternal clans or street gangs. They mark out territory and defend it against other males. This creates a safety zone in which their females can raise their young without worrying about unprovoked attacks from unrelated males. (This is critical because if other males take over the troop they will immediately kill all the young in order to put the females to work raising their own offspring.)
What male chimps do not do is: a) pair off with individual females, or b) play any role in child-rearing. In fact, it is against the code of chimpanzee society for any male and female to take too much interest in each other or pair off. Instead, the strict rule is that every male gets to mate with every female. This maintains the brotherhood and allows male chimps to cooperate among themselves without being torn apart by sexual competition. The females enforce this code as well, making sure to mate with every male, no matter how low his status. This is called “confusing paternity.” The purpose is to make every adult male believe he might be the father. That prevents any of them from harming the offspring.
Now, somewhere in the mists of time, on the Savannas of East Africa, our ancestors abandoned this sexual communalism and adopted instead a system where couples paired off to form monogamous “pair bonds.” This is rare among mammals, although not entirely unknown. About 5 percent of mammals practice monogamy. Among them are our distant cousins, the gibbons of Southeast Asia. Gibbon couples pair off in the jungle and live in solitude, singing weird, haunting tenor-and-soprano duets to warn other males and females out of their territory. They reproduce successfully but do not engage in co-operative effort with any other gibbons.
What was completely unique about the proto-human society of our forebears is that they learned to practice monogamy within the larger group. This occurs among gregarious flocks of birds that spend weeks or months nurturing their young but is unknown among other mammalian species. What it accomplished was to maintain the male solidarity of the chimpanzee troop under much more trying circumstances, while still providing each individual with a reasonable chance to mate. The outcome paved the way for human evolution.
Our earliest ancestors were hardly formidable creatures. They stood three feet tall, had no sharp claws or ferocious teeth, could not outrun predators and had no trees in which to escape. Yet somehow they managed to hold their own in a sea of larger, swifter predators. By sticking together in troops of about 20-25, they were able to protect themselves while scavenging the prey of other animals and eventually becoming hunters themselves. Male chimps hunt for about 5 percent of their diet and do not share with females or offspring. Hunter-gatherer males provide about 35 percent of the diet and share their kill with both mates and children. That is the difference between us and the chimpanzees. It is a legacy of which any male can be proud.
Yet pair-bonding within the group produced much more than this. It also engaged males in child rearing. This additional paternal protection paved the way for other developments — most notably our larger brains. Anthropologists have long noted that upright posture narrowed the hips and made giving birth more difficult for early hominid females. At the same time, the social demands of maintaining the monogamous band in a more challenging environment put a premium on social intelligence. Researchers now believe it was these personal demands — and not some inclination toward “tool-making” — that created the selection pressure for bigger brains. But enlarged brains only made birth even more difficult. As a result all human beings are born about two months prematurely. Most mammals can walk and run within a week whereas we are completely helpless for more than two years. The only thing that would have made this long, out-of-womb period of development possible would be the care of two parents instead of one. The domestication of males into child-rearing creatures was probably the most important step in human evolution.
There is much more to the story. Read Professor Hampikian’s article and you will find he lavishes most of his detail on how our mothers provide nearly all the substance of our bodies, while the male contributes “less than one-millionth of your mass.”
[Y]our father’s 3.3 pictograms of DNA comes out to less than one pound of contribution since the beginning of Homo sapiens 107 billion babies ago.
But as Aristotle taught us, there are both material and formal causes. That 3.3 pictograms may not amount to much on the material scale, but it represents 5 million years of hard-won evolutionary progress. And almost all of that progress has occurred on the Y chromosome.
By concentrating only on the act of reproduction, Professor Hampikian has also missed out on something else — what we might call “civilization.” Here the shape and form of our public life — the rules and regulations by which we live, the trade and cooperation, conflict and war — have all essentially been crafted and created by men. Women are getting very good at participating and in some cases even exceeding the performance of men. But despite what feminist historians will tell you, civilization — in both its positive and negative aspects — has essentially come out of the male gene.
What Professor Hampikian is paving the way for, of course, is the culture of single motherhood. Once confined to the Africa-American underclass, it is now making headway at all levels of society. Indeed, many of the responses on the Times website were from single mothers telling how proud they are to have conceived without a man. But what we are really witnessing here is the unraveling of five million years of human evolution. Professor Hampikian and others like him would do well not to get too hung up on the question of which sex provides more nourishment in the womb. After all, there’s a lot more to being human than the act of reproduction.