Do We Even Need Men?
John Launer on One of Evolution's Greatest Unanswered Questions
Why do males exist? If you learned biology at school, your teachers will probably have told you it was because combining genes from different individuals—one male and one female—increases variation in a species, and it is variation that helps a species survive.
Unfortunately, most evolutionary experts stopped believing in this explanation over 30 years ago. From a reproductive point of view, no individual is interested in anything very much beyond donating genes to the next generation. As far as whole species are concerned, they are preserved or wiped out more or less at random, largely according to the whims of climate and geology. In addition, you don’t actually need sexes to produce variation: the vast majority of organisms like microbes happily mutate and vary without sex.
The great evolutionist John Maynard Smith regarded sex as more or less inexplicable. He talked of “the twofold cost of males.” First, it is incomprehensible that any female should want to throw away half her genes and take on someone else’s, when theoretically she could just produce clones of herself instead. Secondly, the males of many species are entirely useless at doing anything except sitting around, getting fat at the females’ expense, and—in the words of Richard Dawkins—duffing up other males. Among some animals, such as elephant seals, the vast majority of males die as wasteful, disappointed virgins.
Given this wastefulness, it is perhaps not surprising that there are at least 40 species where the female kills the male during or after sex. In the case of the praying mantis, she literally bites his head off as part of foreplay, and he carries on in a delighted reflex of posthumous orgasm. Females of other species are equally imaginative: male scale insects have been demoted to microscopic excrescences on their females’ legs, while female angler fish carry their mates on their backs as tiny dwarves.
More pertinently, there are many effective ways of reproducing apart from sex as we understand it. These include simple division and gene exchange. These alone have served bacteria so well that they have produced the longest-enduring of all species on the planet, as well as comprising the greatest number of species, and probably constituting most of the mass of living organisms as well.
Among other organisms, alternative methods of reproduction include budding, hermaphroditism (one individual carrying both kinds of sex organs) and isogamy (two individuals, not distinguished as male and female, combining their genes). There are asexual variants among all sorts of creatures, including jellyfish, dandelions, lichens and lizards. Of the creatures who do reproduce sexually, some species have two sexes, but others have three, or thirteen, or ten thousand, if you are a fungus. Many species alternate between sexual and asexual reproduction, either on a regular basis or occasionally, as the circumstances require. Bdelloid rotifers—tiny invertebrates who live in drains and puddles—went off sex about 80 million years ago, and have cheerfully diversified into several hundred species since then without regaining the inclination. Maynard Smith described them an “an evolutionary scandal,” since they seemed to disprove the assumption that sex was in any way a biological advance.
The various current theories about why males evolved and still remain in existence are nicely set out in Matt Ridley’s book The Red Queen. They are also covered in Olivia Judson’s racy and wonderfully informative volume, Dr Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation. Different theories rejoice in names like Muller’s ratchet, Kondrashov’s hatchet, and the eponymous Red Queen of Ridley’s book (named after the Lewis Carroll character in Through the Looking-Glass who perpetually runs without getting very far because the landscape moves with her). This last theory seems to be the front runner at the moment. It is based on the idea that sex is part of a continual race to outwit germs.
“It is also reasonable to speculate that patriarchal societies are, ironically, men’s way of trying to assert their own needs in the face of their patent inferiority.”
What is clear, however, is that the consensus that existed on this topic from Darwin until around the 1980s has totally broken down. The purpose of males has instead become one of the biggest unanswered questions in science. My guess is that we will eventually come to understand fertilization by males as an evolutionary compromise, poised half way between invasion and alliance, parasitism and symbiosis, or genetic rape and informed consent. There is already much evidence to show how females resist the process biologically (for example by stripping male sperm of part of their DNA) and how males try to control reproduction against their females’ will (for example, by killing off competitor sperm in the female genital tract, or alternatively killing the competitors and their offspring directly later on).
If the purpose of males in evolutionary terms is equivocal, the consequences of having two sexes are not reassuring for males either. In a review of the evidence relating to human males, my colleague and mentor Sebastian Kraemer has set out the scale of the problem. Throughout life, men are more vulnerable than women on most measures. This starts with the biological fragility of the male fetus, leading to “a greater risk of death or damage from almost all the obstetric catastrophes that can happen before birth.” If they survive these catastrophes, boys then have a far greater susceptibility to developmental disorders than girls. These are magnified in turn by our cultural assumptions about masculinity, and by our low expectations of males. The toxic interaction of biological and social ingredients shows itself in far higher rates of suicide and deaths through violent crime.
Males also do worse in (among other things) scholastic achievement, emotional literacy, alcoholism, substance abuse, circulatory disorders, diabetes, and longevity. Kraemer looks at how male disadvantage is “wired in” from infancy and persists to the grave, but he suggests that we shouldn’t necessarily conclude that maleness is a genetic disorder. Instead, he argues, we should show more curiosity about the reasons for boys and men being so vulnerable, and should pay more attention to redressing this in child-rearing and in medicine. Although Kraemer does not mention this, it is also reasonable to speculate that patriarchal societies are, ironically, men’s way of trying to assert their own needs in the face of their patent inferiority.
It may be no coincidence that questions about the raison d’être for males, and concerns about their relative deficiencies, should have arisen at this point in history; enough of the relevant information would probably have been available to an observer in Darwin’s time. The recent appearance of these scientific preoccupations may well be the consequence of understandable male anxiety. In the last few generations of our species, female control over fertility has developed at a rate so phenomenal that it may justify comparison with the sudden emergence of male-female reproduction itself, around a thousand million years ago. In evolutionary terms, it has taken only the twinkling of an eye from the introduction of the vaginal diaphragm and the contraceptive pill in the middle of the last century, to the widespread use of frozen sperm and extracted eggs, and hence the actualization of human egg cloning. Within the span of just one lifetime, women have advanced through several enormous stages of biological liberation, and have reached the threshold of virgin births.
Assuming that the minor technical problems of gene damage during cloning can soon be overcome, and that legal constraints will in time be removed—assumptions that seem reasonable by any standard—it is possible that the women of our species will soon have the overall choice of doing with very few men, or with none at all. If, in the mean time, they can prevent males from destroying the planet as a viable habitat for humans, they might be forgiven if they choose to follow the path that has already been pioneered by the bdelloid rotifers. Attempts to understand maleness or to redress its difficulties will then become entirely academic.