So what is the “single most underappreciated fact about gender”? Over time, 40% of males reproduced and 80% of females reproduced.

Tierny at the NYT linked to Roy F. Baumeister‘s speech about culture’s use and exploitation of males. Cultural and biological success favors alpha males over beta males.

Baumeister notes that culture uses men and women differently.

I’ll use my definition of culture – it is set of trained conditional responses and memes for apes. We measure the effectiveness of culture by the responses success to fail rate.

Memes and genes evolve to reproduce themselves, so there is a form of natural selection.

He first notes that men tend to dominate at both extremes of society. Males make up a greater proportion of the top elite and the bottom scum. Males are more likely to be great explorers, warriors, politicians, criminals, homeless, and the majority die without reproducing. Why? Because culture exploits men by using them for risky experiments.

Genetically, males are more suitable for risk-taking:

Almost certainly, it is something biological and genetic. And my guess is that the greater proportion of men at both extremes of the IQ distribution is part of the same pattern. Nature rolls the dice with men more than women. Men go to extremes more than women. It’s true not just with IQ but also with other things, even height: The male distribution of height is flatter, with more really tall and really short men.
…men really are better AND worse than women.
A pattern of more men at both extremes can create all sorts of misleading conclusions and other statistical mischief. To illustrate, let’s assume that men and women are on average exactly equal in every relevant respect, but more men at both extremes. If you then measure things that are bounded at one end, it screws up the data to make men and women seem significantly different.

This is true in other ape species and most species in general. Darwin noted the greater diversity of males than females almost two centuries ago.

Sample graph from Steven Pinker’s debate on the science behind gender difference:


When you move two standard deviations from the mean, you see a vastly greater proportion of males than females with a specific trait – on either side. A greater proportion of males are genetic freaks of nature than females.

Cultural and Natural selection for males favor those who take major risks and win – which implies that the majority of males fail.

One can imagine an ancient battle in which the enemy was driven off and the city saved, and the returning soldiers are showered with gold coins. An early feminist might protest that hey, all those men are getting gold coins, half of those coins should go to women. In principle, I agree. But remember, while the men you see are getting gold coins, there are other men you don’t see, who are still bleeding to death on the battlefield from spear wounds.

That’s an important first clue to how culture uses men. Culture has plenty of tradeoffs, in which it needs people to do dangerous or risky things, and so it offers big rewards to motivate people to take those risks. Most cultures have tended to use men for these high-risk, high-payoff slots much more than women.

Fitness, in natural selection, does not produce the ideal best result. Biological and cultural systems have tradeoffs. One example is how the body’s immune system produces proteins which suppress cancer but accelerate aging. Another example is the tradeoff between sickle-cell anemia and malaria.

The competition for survival in evolution largely occurs within species. Genes “experiment” with new variations and discover better ways to survive. Cultures, given they entirely a product of genes, behave the same way.

Consider males the experimental group and women the control group. Culture uses males to explore unknown land and tame it. If it is good land for civilization, then women emigrate there. If not, the males just died.

Biological reproduction produces similar tradeoffs which leads to greater competitive pressure on males than females.

For men, the outlook was radically different [than women]. If you go along with the crowd and play it safe, the odds are you won’t have children. Most men who ever lived did not have descendants who are alive today. Their lines were dead ends. Hence it was necessary to take chances, try new things, be creative, explore other possibilities. Sailing off into the unknown may be risky, and you might drown or be killed or whatever, but then again if you stay home you won’t reproduce anyway. We’re most descended from the type of men who made the risky voyage and managed to come back rich. In that case he would finally get a good chance to pass on his genes. We’re descended from men who took chances (and were lucky).

The huge difference in reproductive success very likely contributed to some personality differences, because different traits pointed the way to success. Women did best by minimizing risks, whereas the successful men were the ones who took chances.

Males are more acceptant of risk while women are risk adverse. This is another recurring finding. High levels of testosterone increase risky behavior. This may be a link between cultural and biological factors which select males with higher risk acceptance for reproduction.

There’s a lot of experiments (ie Auction Games, Ultimatum Games etc), which show that males with high testosterone are more aggressive and more likely to take gambles. For instance, in the ultimatum games, high-testosterone males are more likely to reject the cash offer (even though this seems irrational). The other players give the alpha males more money than beta males or women, because they’re a little afraid of the spiteful and aggressive alpha males. So its a riskier strategy that pays off.

Risk taking is associated with high rewards – in terms of reproduction, fame, wealth, and the like. And of course, it has a high failure rate.

Culture uses (and disposes of) risk-taking males to test new ideas or explore new land. Most male lines are dead-ends because they explored in the wrong direction.

And this is where our perceptions wrong. Our society tends to look at the end results rather than the process. We only count the hits and ignore the misses.

If males get all the rewards, then they rigged the system against women and don’t want to share. That’s not true and it likely never has been. But remember the example of the battlefield. Men took life-threatening risks, and only a handful turned out to be heroes who were rewarded. Most died and were quickly forgotten. Male competition about who took the biggest gambles and won. Women who take huge risks can get the same payoffs as males, but they are rarer for whatever reason.

Baumeister speculates about another point, which may be related to the above:

The gist of our view was that there are two different ways of being social. In social psychology we tend to emphasize close, intimate relationships, and yes, perhaps women specialize in those and are better at them than men. But one can also look at being social in terms of having larger networks of shallower relationships, and on these, perhaps, men are more social than women.

So for instance, he cites studies on aggression and helping. Females are more aggressive than males in intimate relationships but less so in broader social relationships. The reverse is true with males and helping. Males are more likely to help near-total strangers than women, but the reverse is true in intimate relationships.

So we reexamined the evidence Cross and Madsen had provided. Consider aggression. True, women are less aggressive than men, no argument there. But is it really because women don’t want to jeopardize a close relationship? It turns out that in close relationships, women are plenty aggressive. Women are if anything more likely than men to perpetrate domestic violence against romantic partners, everything from a slap in the face to assault with a deadly weapon. Women also do more child abuse than men, though that’s hard to untangle from the higher amount of time they spend with children. Still, you can’t say that women avoid violence toward intimate partners.

Indeed. here’s one such study from the CDC:

Regarding perpetration of violence, more women than men (25 percent versus 11 percent) were responsible. In fact, 71 percent of the instigators in nonreciprocal partner violence were women. This finding surprised Whitaker and his colleagues, they admitted in their study report.

And while injury was more likely when violence was perpetrated by men, in relationships with reciprocal violence it was the men who were injured more often (25 percent of the time) than were women (20 percent of the time). “This is important as violence perpetrated by women is often seen as not serious,” Whitaker and his group stressed.

Males and Females are both aggressive but within different spheres. So Males are more aggressive in broader social arenas than women. This isn’t actually a problem. Baumeister: “Women specialize in the narrow sphere of intimate relationships. Men specialize in the larger group.”

To what extent is this cultural or genetic? Probably mixed. Those women who take take huge risks can become just as powerful as the top men. It’s mostly a matter of self-motivation and willingness to take life-defying risks. We can track potential changes in motivation by looking at the male-female proportion in the military for example.

What seems to have worked best for cultures is to play off the men against each other, competing for respect and other rewards that end up distributed very unequally. Men have to prove themselves by producing things the society values. They have to prevail over rivals and enemies in cultural competitions, which is probably why they aren’t as lovable as women.

The essence of how culture uses men depends on a basic social insecurity. This insecurity is in fact social, existential, and biological. Built into the male role is the danger of not being good enough to be accepted and respected and even the danger of not being able to do well enough to create offspring.

The basic social insecurity of manhood is stressful for the men, and it is hardly surprising that so many men crack up or do evil or heroic things or die younger than women. But that insecurity is useful and productive for the culture, the system.

So it seems that human cultures actively punish Beta Males in favor of Alpha Males – yet at the same time, it rewards both Alpha and Beta females. There’s definitely some cultural selection going on, so it’s an interesting hypothesis.