A Philosopher's Blog

Being a Man V: Birds & Bees

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 18, 2010
Male Scarlet Robin (Petroica boodang) in the M...
Image via Wikipedia

After reading an article in National Geographic about orchids and evolution, the idea struck me that it makes sense to look at being a man in the context of evolutionary theory. In the case of the orchid article, the idea was that the amazing adaptations of orchids (for example, imitating female insects so as to attract pollinators) can all be explained in terms of natural selection. While humans have a broader range of behavior than orchids, the same principle would seem to apply.

Crudely and simply put, the theory is that organisms experience random mutations and these are selected for (or against) by natural processes. Organisms that survive and reproduce pass on their genes (including the mutations). Those that do not reproduce, do not pass on their genes. Over time, this process of selection  can result in significant changes in a species or even the creation of new species. While there are no purposes or goals in this “system”, it can create the appearance of design: organisms that survive will be well suited to the conditions in which they live. This is, of course, not design-if they did not fit, they would not survive to be there.

Getting back to being a man, evolution has shaped men via this process of natural selection. As such, the men who are here now are descended from men who had qualities that contributed to their surviving and reproducing. These men will, in turn, go through the natural selection process. In the case of humans, the process is often more complicated than that of birds, bees and orchids. However, as noted above, the basic idea is the same.  The “men” of the non-human species have  a set of behaviors that define this role. In most cases, the majority of these behaviors (nest building, fighting, displaying, and so on) are instinctual. In the case of humans, some of the behavior is probably hard-wired, but much of it is learned behavior. However, if one buys into evolutionary theory, what lies behind all this is the process of evolution. As such, being a man would simply be an evolutionary “strategy” that arose out of the process of natural selection. As such, being a man is on par with being a drake, a bull or a steer.  That is, it involves being in a gender role that is typically occupied by biological males.

Of course, this does not help a great deal in deciding how one should act if one wants to be a man in a meaningful sense. But, evolution is not about what one ought to do. It is simply about what is: survive and be selected, or fail and be rejected. That said, looking at comparable roles in the animal kingdom as well as considering the matter of evolution (and biology) might prove useful in looking at the matter scientifically.

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6 Responses

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  1. freddiek said, on May 18, 2010 at 8:39 am

    Q: Id drakes or bulls could read, would they openly read articles about orchids and evolution?

  2. magus71 said, on May 19, 2010 at 12:00 am

    The problem with the evolutionary view of being a man, is like in your orchid example, you can view any “mutation” as being of evolutionary necessity. For instance, you said that the orchids look like female insects to attract males insects. And yet, how many other species of plants are there that are pollinated that don’t look like female insects? Many, many.

    Attributing mutations to needs is dubious and a common problem with evolution. So it is with men.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 19, 2010 at 3:16 pm

      That is a reasonable concern. After all, random mutations + natural selection would seem to only go so far. Of course, it might be nothing to do with design. Rather, the mechanisms of evolution could be more robust than the current theory postulates.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on June 11, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    A must read.


    The End of Men

    Earlier this year, women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. Most managers are now women too. And for every two men who get a college degree this year, three women will do the same. For years, women’s progress has been cast as a struggle for equality. But what if equality isn’t the end point? What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women? A report on the unprecedented role reversal now under way— and its vast cultural consequences.

    By Hanna Rosin

    • T. J. Babson said, on June 11, 2010 at 11:03 pm



      Wednesday, June 9, 2010
      The American Man: R.I.P.?
      Hanna Rosin got a little carried away when she entitled her recent article: “The End of Men.” Link here.

      Rosin does make reference to other countries and cultures, but she is focusing primarily on the decline and fall of the American man.

      If so, this development seems less a natural socio-economic progression and more the effect of decades of social engineering.

      Of course, women the world over are gaining new freedoms and new opportunities. And yet, what seems to be uniquely American is that this is taking place at the expense of men.

      Creating the conditions where women and girls will be able to compete fairly in the classroom and the marketplace is not the same as systematically demoralizing men and boys to the point where they will not be able to compete effectively.

      Rosin’s article is comprehensive. It is not just another exercise in feminist mythmaking. Still, it has its shortcomings.

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