Testosterone Put to the Test

Men today—wimpy or exploited or both?

Do today’s men need to man up? Yes, absolutely, Peter McAllister says in “Manthropology,” viewing contemporary males as faint shadows of their shaggy forebears.

Modern man, Mr. McAllister declares, is “the worst man in history,” though not every reader will be convinced by the evidence presented. Certainly the guys of 2010 are not as physically tough as the men of other times and other places. Mr. McAllister, who is especially entertaining when he writes about male-centric mayhem, scoffs at what passes for grit these days. He dismisses, for instance, modern-day “blood pinning,” in which military insignia are jabbed into soldiers’ chests, as minor-league at best. Sambian boys in New Guinea have traditionally been initiated into manhood with cane splints jammed up their nostrils and vines shoved down their throats. He also roughs up modern soldiers, noting that Army recruits are asked to run only 12 miles in four hours; in China, Wu Dynasty soldiers in the sixth century B.C. were reputed to go on 80-mile runs without a break.

You might think, given all the moaning lately, that helmet-to-helmet hits in football are a sign of a violent sports culture. Don’t tell Mr. McAllister. Even the no-holds-barred brawling of Ultimate Fighting Championship, he says, is “a ridiculously safe form of combat” when compared with Olympic boxing back in the good old days—say, the fifth century B.C. That’s when a boxer named Cleomedes killed his opponent Iccus “by driving his hand into his stomach and disemboweling him.”

For Mr. McAllister one measure of manhood is the willingness to face an enemy and mete out punishment without flinching. Today our conduct in war is governed by a handbook of careful rules. Mr. McAllister, for contrast, points to the 17th-century Native American practice of not only scalping victims alive but also “heaping hot coals onto their scalped heads.” Which is nothing compared with the attentions lavished by the Romans on a Christian named Apphianus, who was racked for 24 hours and scourged so hard that “his ribs and spine showed.”

Even today’s bloodthirsty maniacs are pikers by comparison with the rampagers of yore. In the 13th century, Genghis Khan’s son Tolui killed nearly every inhabitant of Merv in Turkmenistan, then the world’s largest city. All told, Mr. McAllister writes, the Mongols killed as many as 60 million people during nearly a century of slaughter. “Al Qaeda and its affiliates,” he adds with something of a sneer, “succeeded in killing 14,602 people worldwide in 2005.” True enough, although by some readings Mr. McAllister is describing a positive development.

Male readers who slink away from “Manthropology” feeling that Mr. McAllister has driven a Cleomedesian fist into their guts may find some solace in Roy F. Baumeister’s “Is There Anything Good About Men?” Mr. Baumeister is less concerned about the wimpification of modern man than about the degree to which men have been historically “exploited.” The very cultures that men have built, he says, have considered males more “expendable” than women.

The expendability is reflected in wartime casualty rates, of course, but men also die more often in work-related accidents and die earlier, on average. Their energies are the motor for some bad things but also for a great deal of good, including the economic bustle and technological advance that we associate with progress. But men, Mr. Baumeister says, are often taken for granted and denigrated as the bane of female existence, with some gender activist insisting that women would be better off without them. In a feisty rejoinder, Mr. Baumeister says that “if women really would have been happier without men,” they would have “set up shop” on their own long ago. “The historical record is overwhelming,” he adds. “Women stick around men.”

In a passage that may strike a chord in some male readers, Mr. McAllister says that men are disadvantaged when it comes to sex. Women don’t pay for sex because “they don’t have to. Women can get sex for nothing.” When women offer themselves to male celebrities, he notes, men jump at the opportunity. When men do the same to women celebrities, they can expect a visit from the security detail. But Mr. Baumeister, a psychology professor, writes with a hopeful air, insisting that, while men and women are different, they can create partnerships based on complementary skills. No hard feelings, apparently, about those centuries of exploitation.

Both “Manthropology” and “Is There Anything Good About Men?” leave the reader wondering: Aren’t men better off these days? What’s a decline in pillaging-proficiency and a history of being a tad taken-advantage-of when, on the whole, modern man has it so good?

Mr. McAllister inadvertently answers the question at book’s end by envisioning a male Homo erectus from a million years ago, plucked off the African plain and plunked down at a Nascar event. The visitor, we’re told, gazing at the soft-bellied male race enthusiasts in the stands, would be horrified and bellow (if he could indeed speak): “My sons, my sons, why have you forsaken me?”

But there is another view. If ancient erectus were told that his “sons” had driven to the event at 70 m.p.h. in cars outfitted with satellite radios; that they lived in climate-controlled houses equipped with refrigerators full of parasite-free steaks from Argentina and beer from Holland; that they and their womenfolk took showers and were familiar with shampoo, he might shout: “My sons, you have found the Kingdom of Heaven!” And, comparatively speaking, he’d be right.

Mr. Shiflett posts his journalism and original music at Daveshiflett.com.


Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304410504575561103201543976.html