Book Excerpt from Women After All

In the introduction to his latest book, author Melvin Konner explains why he considers maleness a departure from normal physiology.

Feb 2, 2015
Melvin Konner

W.W. NORTON & COMPANY, MARCH 2015There is a birth defect that is surprisingly common, due to a change in a key pair of chromosomes. In the normal condition the two look the same, but in this disorder one is shrunken beyond recognition. The result is shortened life span, higher mortality at all ages, an inability to reproduce, premature hair loss, and brain defects vari­ously resulting in attention deficit, hyperactivity, conduct disorder, hypersexuality, and an enormous excess of both outward and self-directed aggression. The main physiological mechanism is androgen poisoning, although there may be others. I call it the X-chromosome deficiency syndrome, and a stunning 49 percent of the human spe­cies is affected.

It is also called maleness.

My choice to call being male a syndrome and to consider it less normal than the usual alternative is not (as I will show you) an arbi­trary moral judgment. It is based on evolution, physiology, devel­opment, and susceptibility to disease. Once in our distant past, all of our ancestors could reproduce from their own bodies; in other words, we were all basically female. When biologists ask why sex evolved, they are not asking rhetorically—the fact that sex feels good was a valuable addition. What they are really asking is: Why did those self-sufficient females invent males? It had to be a very big rea­son, since they were bringing in a whole new cast of characters that took up space and ate their fill, not to mention being quite annoying, but could not themselves realize the goal of evolution: creating new life.

We’ll consider this in chapter 2, but briefly, the best answer to the puzzle seems to be: to escape being wiped out by germs. When you make new life on your own, you basically clone yourself, and ultimately lots of your offspring and relatives have the same genes. The germ that gets one of you gets you all. Create males, and in due course there is much more variation. Mate with a male that’s a bit different from you, and you produce a creature different from both of you. Result: germs confounded. Meanwhile, you export the fiercest part of the competition. You do the reproducing, he doesn’t (except for his teensy donation), so he can duke it out with the other males and they can evolve faster. Your daughters inherit the varia­tion, and they compete and evolve, too.

But it turns out you have created a sort of Frankenstein monster, after a certain point hard to control. Consider the lowly, graceful water striders that scoot over pond tops in summer. Females sig­nal that they are ready to mate by causing ripples of a certain fre­quency to billow out in the water, and the ripples turn males on. But the females don’t take all comers. Female choice is vital. Males that don’t rate, they drive away. Yet males have their ways. They have evolved grasping antennae, perfectly shaped to get a grip on the female’s head. A male approaches from behind and secures his hold, then flips her and himself upside down.  Using his rear legs, he positions their bodies. If he gets this far, she stops resisting. He is the one. Or one of the ones, at any rate. She mates several times a day and seems to play males against each other.

This is not an allegory of human mating; it is an illumination, more parallel than parable. Female choice is crucial in humans, too, but males didn’t evolve grasping antennae. They evolved strategies of seduction, including romance, patience, persistence, gifts, help, verbal praise, argument, promises, threats, family influence, and deception. Human females have protected themselves with skepti­cism, social alliances, and a tendency to stay aloof and keep men guessing. The man who talks the best game has usually convinced himself first, and (unlike the water striders, which do it physically) you might say they emotionally flip for each other. Sometimes males use force. In this they rely on superior physical strength, gained through eons of competition with other males for access to those very selective females.

Women, of course, compete as well, against men and among themselves, also with skills honed over eons. But the need to repro­duce, with all its risk and cost, has kept them relatively levelheaded and dubious of men’s schemes. For most of the history of sexual reproduction, females have often stood by while males fought over them, physically or otherwise. They know that they won’t always be able to tell a lifelong pal from a sperm donor, and in many spe­cies one good sperm is all they want. But they, too, have to repro­duce, and that means tolerating uncertainty and being prepared for contingencies. For us humans, the trouble is that men’s competitive antics and untold ages of imposing their will on women have created a world in peril from their rivalries. Females, whether water striders or women, might be forgiven for looking back with a jaded eye on whichever ancestor it was that gave birth to the first male.

Women have always had to struggle for equality, even in the small hunter-gatherer bands we evolved in. Yet with further cultural evo­lution, it got worse. With the rise of what we like to call civiliza­tion, men’s superior muscle fostered a vast military, economic, and political conspiracy, enabling them to exclude women from leading roles. Jealousy of women’s power to give sex—and, more impor­tantly, to give life—led men to build worlds upon and against them for millennia. Or as Camille Paglia put it in Sexual Personae, “Male bonding and patriarchy were the recourse to which man was forced by his terrible sense of woman’s power.” Appealing myths about Amazons are just that: myths. Only women whose fathers, sons, or husbands gave them the scepters of power could wield it, and then only temporarily. Even in matrilineal societies, men had most of the power. The result was ten millennia in which we squandered half of the best talent in the human race. Brawn mattered for those one hundred centuries, but in spite of their greater strength, men had to make laws to suppress women, because on a truly level playing field, women were destined to compete successfully and very often win.

That is the other meaning of the quote from de Beauvoir: “The problem of woman has always been a problem of men.” Although I don’t agree with her that all differences between men and women are culturally determined, I fully accept that the majority of the differences we have seen throughout history are caused by male supremacy and the subordination of women. History is written by the victors, and the victors in the battle between the sexes have for many centuries been males; of course they have defined women downward and have invented and promulgated an “essential” inferiority of women as a part of femininity itself. That is the part that is not at all inherent in biology; rather, it is, literally, a man-made myth.

But millennial male dominance is about to come to an end. Glass ceilings are splintering into countless shards of light, and women are climbing male power pyramids in every domain of life. Even in the world’s most sexist societies, women and girls form a fundamentally subversive group that, as communications technology shows them other women’s freedoms, will undermine age-old male conceit and give them the sway of the majority they are.

The freer and more educated girls and women become, the fewer children they have; men are proven obstacles to family planning. Even in the poorest lands, the increasing availability of women’s suffrage, health services, microloans, and savings programs, is giv­ing them control over their destinies. As soon as that happens, they reduce the size and poverty of their families. It becomes clearer every year that the best way to spend an aid dollar in the develop­ing world is to educate and empower women and girls. The conse­quences are manifold.

Replacing quantity with quality in childbearing will not save just women, or even just struggling, impoverished countries. It will save the planet and make it habitable for our species. It will greatly reduce the necessity for violence of all kinds, as it has already begun to do. Male domination has outlived any purpose it may once have had. Perhaps it played some role in our success as a species so far, but now it is an obstacle. Empowering women is the next step in human evolution, and as the uniquely endowed creatures we are, we can choose to help bring it about.

Excerpted from Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy by Melvin Konner. Copyright © 2015 by Melvin Konner. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.