Episode 22: Michael Gilbert: What Darwin Teaches US About Men, Women and Relationships
Michael Gilbert: What Darwin Teaches US About Men, Women and Relationships
Announcer: This program is intended for mature audiences only.
Chip August: Welcome to Sex, Love and Intimacy. I'm your host Chip August and on today's show, my guest Michael Gilbert is the author of "The Disposable Male." Michael is a senior fellow at the l Center for the Digital Future which is at the Annenberg School at University of Southern California (USC). He's a former university lecturer and a former research analyst. He writes about Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology. The Center for the Digital Future is a research and policy center. I think that's what they call a think tank.
Michael is just a font of information about men, women, sex and evolution and how all of these affect our actual psychology and behavior. And so today, that's what we're going to be talking about. We'll be talking about how evolution affects psychology. We're going talk a little bit about how men and women's sexual agenda, where they come from and how they have been changing. We're going to learn a little about what Michael calls our natural heritage and out of all that, I think we'll get some sense about some men's role in society and how it's changing.
Michael Gilbert: What I'm really doing over that expanse is giving the reader a sense of how an evolutionist - a Darwinian would look at the world. It's really for those of us who don't believe that we got here on Noah's ark. It's really a version of the creation story.
For the six million years we spent out on the Savannah until we discovered agriculture ten thousand years ago, life was short and brutal. The offspring died or were left to die if they were weak. Clearly, the best strategy - sexual strategy, reproductive strategy for men was plant your seed as widely as you can. In other words, deep biological or evolutionary issues are still governing how we, men and women, think about issues as fundamental as sex, kids and going to work.
The superficial male trigger that worked out on the Savannah and still works on a lot of hot clubs around town, I guess. I wanted to make the point that pornography speaks directly to males. It's wanton females readily available for procreative purposes. It's so interesting because women gravitate to romance and all which puts sexual intimacy into a context, into a kind of a relationship setting.
Interestingly enough, men have estrogen and women have testosterone. And in fact as we age, the hormonal balances shift because men's testosterone edges off and their estrogen levels start to come up. And suddenly man's fantasy starts to shift from dominant to submission once in a while.
Chip: Welcome to the show, Michael Gilbert.
Michael: It's a pleasure to be here.
Chip: I want to just direct in that title -" Disposable Male". Being a male definitely, I have a moment of I'm disposable? Ouch! What do you mean by "The Disposable Male"?
Michael: Well, the subtitle of the book is "Sex, Love and Money: Your World Through Darwin's Eyes". What I'm trying to do in the first half of the book is to just bring the reader through our past - from the Big Bang 14 billion years ago. The Big Bang that ended World War II and along the way in that first half explain thing about how we stood up on two feet and how relationships develop between the sexes and why we develop skills such as language and the ability to use tools.
I'm trying to keep it light and breezy but what I'm really doing over that expanse is giving the reader a sense of how an evolutionist, the Darwinian would look at the world. It's really for those of us who don't believe we got here on Noah's ark. It's really a version of the creation story. In the second half of the book, we take this perspective and we focus it on men today, women today, relationships, family, kids and why we go to work.
Looking through these eyes, looking through the eyes of an evolutionist, one of the first things that I see is a broad social trend is that we've marginalized a lot of men. Not the alpha man on the top, they always do great and they're lately doing better than ever but down on the ranks, I think that men have been a little sidelined as women have moved into areas around resource provision and careers.
And of course, women's particular zone of biological reproduction is foreclosed to men so it's my sense that we're not really asking enough of men out there. Maybe we're asking a little too much of women in particular working mothers, especially single working mothers. So the title comes from the notion that looking through this evolutionary point of view, we see this kind of broad social trend.
The evolutionary perspective, the evolutionary eye view of life is something that has a lot of potential, Chip. It has a lot of useful ways that we can look at things from the base level of our sexual desires and enters all the way up to how we organize our society.
Chip: Well, help me understand a little bit about how an evolutionary point of view is useful. I didn't read the whole book but I read all the excerpts on your website. I sort of stepped back and had a moment of "Oh my god, are we locked into this? Is this just like the way it is?" Why is looking backwards useful?
Michael: Well, you know, it's really not so much looking backwards as I prefer to think of it as honoring our past. It's great that we've evolved to very sophisticated levels in our society, but little boy and little girls come out of the womb and join the world and they're not blank slates. They're carrying genetic equipment that's five, six, seven million years old -some of our most basic operating functions like breathing, for instance. We can climb the higher levels of our aspirations but we've got to honor the base part of our nature.
An example of how an evolutionary perspective would be useful, let's take our favorite subject- sex. For men who don't get pregnant, who don't really in a sense bear the biological consequences of sex, for the six million years we spent out on the savannah until we discovered agriculture ten thousand years ago, life was short and brutal. An offspring died or were left to die if they were weak. Clearly the best strategy, sexual strategy, reproductive strategy for men was plant your seeds as widely as you can. There were no consequences. You put your tail between your legs and you went off and look for the next conquest.
On the other hand, women get pregnant. They carry this infant for nine months in their bodies. They then have an obligation that they'd be with them for years. The result of this dynamic, I think, is that I think in the back of the book I said "Why is it that men are so interested into getting the sex part and women want to talk about relationships?" It is for this reason - these are deep biological and evolutionary issues that are still governing how we men and women think about issues as fundamental as sex, kids and going to work.
It's important to understand that to abandon our natural heritage, our genetic bequest.. brand new paradigms based on what we think in our mind is going to work is to me is a denial of the past. I think we need to root ourselves, anchor ourselves there before we start to climb into the higher levels of what we achieve in life and in society.
Chip: And yet it seems that in the last two or three generations, there seems to have been a huge deviation from what was normal for humans... I mean suddenly pretty much with the advent of World War II and thereafter, women in the workforce, of women being single parents, smaller families - it feels like there's something changing. Yeah?
Michael: There's no doubt. I think that has to do with technology. I think it has something to do with the deferment of marriage. Two, three or four generations ago, a 16, 17, 18-year old woman went from her parents' home to the home of her husband. The average age for marriage now is currently 25 for a woman and 27 for a man. This means that women are sprung free. They've now got a sense of themselves. Thankfully, the world has opened up for women and the opportunities are there now, but so are the obligations.
There was an article in the New York Times just a few weeks ago that talked about a study done on happiness. In the mid-70s, women were slightly happier than men and in this recent version of the study, men are slightly happier than women. The reason is that according to the studies was that women now have taken on the traditional burdens in the world and yet they still get stuck with 90% of the things at home, and times with kids and so forth. The men are working less and relaxing more; that's apparently why they're happy. Yes, things have changed dramatically but it isn't a foregone conclusion that it's all for the better and all for the good.
I think the story isn't yet complete about that but there are clear and obvious signs now that these changes are not really necessarily working out or being constructive for everybody in our society.
Chip: Somewhere in all these, it seems to me that this must fuel a kind of adversarial politics between men and women. Suddenly we're all competing for the same role.
Michael: Right. This is one of the complaints I have about the more toughie end of the feminist movement. They detach women from the family. They constructed a politics, if you will, base on victimization and competition - we can do what you can do. To me, men and women are a team. We're a partnership and we're enhanced by each other's strength. Even in business, do you want a partner who is exactly good at what you're good at and exactly bad at what you're bad at? That's the worst possible combination to my mind.
I'm a great believer in not only acknowledging the differences between the sexes, but celebrating those differences and indeed using to improve our position. I want to be strong where my partner isn't so good. And I want her to be great where maybe I'm not so good. Then together, we're better off and indeed, this setting of men and women - toe to toe- you got five, I want five is to me... I call them the gender mathematicians. I think that they have led men and women astray.
Chip: Gender mathematician. What do you mean by that?
Michael: Well, you know.. It's like men are 52% of managers, we better make sure that women are 60%. It's like a mathematical competitiveness.
Chip: Yeah. It's trying to manage society by quotas.
Michael: Exactly. It's managing the results rather than creating opportunities.
Chip: Yeah. Listen, I love all these. I want to talk a lot more but I also want to take a break so we're going to take a pause and we'll be right back.
[commercial break] 13:25:18
Chip: Welcome back on Sex, Love and Intimacy. I'm your host, Chip August. I'm talking to Michael Gilbert, the author of "The Disposable Male" and we've been talking a little bit about men, women and evolutionary psychology, I guess for lack of better terms.
I want to see if we can steer this conversation a little bit more towards sexuality, and for some of the sexual differences between men and women and mating strategies. I'm sure you have a point of view about all that.
Michael: Oh yeah, my goodness. I have a point of view about all this stuff. There are probably too many points of view.
This longing into sexuality at this moment, let's get down right into it. I was alluding to the superficial male trigger that worked out on the savannah and still worked around the hot clubs around town, I guess. I wanted to make a point that pornography speaks directly to male. They are wanton females readily available for procreative purposes. It's so interesting because women gravitate into romance and all, which puts sexual intimacy into a context, into a kind of a relationship setting.
A masterful male comes along; he is a powerhouse. He is smitten by the female who draws him in with her tempestous capacity and finally settle this strong bull down to happy pastures. Pornography is the male romance novel. It's really the way men think about sexuality, which a lot of men do when they get down to it. But I also wanted for your listeners to explain what does he mean by evolutionary perspective applied to modern life and I want to take a moment to talk about the beloved high heel shoe.
Chip: Oh, please.
Michael: I don't know who it was who invented this but by golly, this guy needs to be given a Nobel prize because the high heel shoe was a fabulous thing. We never do see those glamour shots of women wearing Birkenstock. It's always that three-inch heel and there's a great reason for that. As an evolutionist looking at that proposition of the high heell, I see a shoe that places the toes and makes them look longer, heightens the arch and heightens the outline of the back of the Achilles tendon. All of which is important out on the savannah, because you've got a child clinging to you, you need to be able to pivot and run and get out of the way of some very dangerous thing.
The high heel extends the leg to make it look long. It gives the ankle a kind of thorough bred feel. It enhances the musculature of the leg that shows that kind of strength. It provides a slightly more receptive sexual posture for the woman. It hobbles her. If she's out on a date, she's going to hobble up on a point heel, playing into the protective male instincts. It may be a high heel to the average guy out on the street, but to an evolutionist, it's quite a piece of work.
Chip: Wow! [laughs]
Michael: That's the kind of thing we talk about in the book because I'm constantly trying to make a point to the reader that this isn't ancient business. This is modern. We are creatures. We're animals and share 98% of our genetic structure with chimpanzees. This shows you by the way just how important 2% can be.
Chip: Yeah, really.
Michael: ... but the reality is we have the side of ourselves. Although it plants itself out in sophisticated ways in sophisticated cultures that ours, still underneath it all, there are evolutionary and biological things. And if people can understand that and look at the world that way, I think they would be benefitted not only having a better time with sex but also in a very, very generous sense. It's a lot more than seeking out who is alpha male in the room. There is a rich trove of information in evolution and evolutionary thinking.
Chip: Isn't a lot of this run by our hormones? Isn't it when I'm 20 years old, as a male, I can barely think because of the testosterone that's running through me. I've met so many women in their late 20s, early 30s but that biological clock is ticking. It's so loud that they can fairly feel their own pulse. Isn't a lot of it is run by our hormone?
Michael: Absolutely. I have a section in this book that's called "The Tyranny of Testosterone".
Chip: Oh, yeah.
Michael: As a young man when we were in our 20s, the power of that push can be... If you get across the room to talk to that hottie and push that agenda, it's awesome. As we get older, we escape the tyranny. Men do as they get into their 30s. This is one of the good new things about the evolution of sex, and that is - yes, it's hugely dependent on hormones, but interestingly enough, men have estrogen and women have testosterone.
In fact, as we age the hormonal balances shift because man's level of testosterone edges off and the estrogen levels start to come up; suddenly man's fantasies shift from dominance to submission once in a while. The inverse is happening with women, which maybe why men and women are so designed to stay together. As women age, they develop a little of the tough, assertive side that testosterone delivers as their estrogen levels start to diminish.
Yeah, I think libido is a hormone. We are powerfully driven by them. Adolescent boys go through intense rushes of testosterone that can be four to six times the level that an adult male endures which explains why a lot of 14-year old boys are jerking off often.
Chip: It's certainly resonating with me. [laughs]
Michael: [laughs] And it's because it's really powerful. Testosterone drives a lot of other things beyond sex. It's part of that single-minded purpose message in man that's a source of prickly anger sometimes when you can see a guy boiling over; it can run out of control a little bit and create some unhappy situations. In a sense, it shapes the male body -women like some of those strong jaw lines in men. It's kind of testosterone face.
It's an important hormone and it plays a significant role in our sexuality for sure.
Chip: I think what I'm hearing though and I'm putting them together differently than what you said, as we figure out how to live longer, our bodies, my 54-year old body, has a hormonal component that's different than it was zero to forty. And so as men and women are living longer, in a way, we're living into a whole different thing than what our biology evolved for.
Michael: I think so. Yeah. I think that srong, settled, mature men who are comfortable in their masculinity, as they move into their 40s and 50s; they develop a very acute feminine side. You really develop that sense of wanting to be handled or sort of taken charge of. If you come to understand, I think a lot of the issues that emerge from the estrogen-laden female..
Chip: And I think vice-versa.
Chip: And I think vice-versa. I think that's also happening in women.
Michael: Correct. Absolutely and that's great. One of the ways that I measure my sexual health is that over the years, the interest I have in women sort of aged along with me.
Chip: [laughs] Yeah.
Michael: I'm comfortable with that. I like that. I'm in my early 60s and I'm not interested in a 20-year old women. I'm interested in 45, 50 and 55-year old women.
Chip: I think there's a distinction there. My guess would be and I don't want to speak for you. When I talk with them, it's the difference between... I can now look at a 20-year old and really see how beauty she is and really be turned on by that but have absolutely no desire to create a relationship with that person because what would we talk about? And I don't want to be that 20-year old stud anymore.
Chip: But the visual is still there. I know the same thing is true with women. I talked to 50-year old women and they can see the eye candy in a 20-year old stud. You know, the nights are long and cold; and you want somebody you can talk to.
Michael: Indeed, you do. I use the metaphor of being in a restaurant. A mother and her daughter come in. The mother in her 50s and the daughter is 25; they're equally attractive, well-preserved women. I'm going to look at the daughter but I'll be fantasizing about the mother.
Michael: Because when it comes to sex, I'm more interested in experience than I am in an activity. I think with younger women, it's less of a participation. I think that a 50-year old woman has matured and learned about men and how they function. At least one hopes they have and bring the maturity and depths to even just the intimate part, that I think is really important.
Chip: This is all fascinating. I'm really enjoying talking to you. I want to take a short break to give a chance for us to support our sponsors a little bit. We'll be right.
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Chip: Welcome back to Sex, Love and Intimacy. I'm your host Chip August. I'm talking to Michael Gilbert, the author of "The Disposable Male" and we've been talking about men and women, and evolutionary psychology and sociobiology. I'm just having a grand old time. I love thinking about all this stuff.
So men, women equality. There's somehow often perceived in this model of men are hunters and women are gatherers but somehow men are superior. Is that sort of what biology is telling us?
Michael: I think probably if it's telling us any at all, it's probably telling us the opposite.
Michael: Women with their much more elaborate body. The fact that they incubate the child, I think of men as barren. Their genitalia are hanging out in front unprotected. They don't have any of the mammary erotic capacities that women have. They aren't tied to lunar cycles in the way that women are. I think it's impossible to talk about the sexes without thinking of them as equal but I want to say that "equal to does not mean the same as".
Chip: Yeah, good point.
Michael: That's a difference that I think we need to celebrate and enjoy. Indeed, wouldn't it be a dull world to wake up to just one gender. If we talk about these things and people try to get into the book, I try to remind them frequently that although there are distinctions - powerful and important ones between the sexes, that underneath it all there's a basic equality that needs to be at a force and part of it in the last section, I talked about the fact that men have estrogen and women have testosterone.
We're not on a continuum. Definitely men primarily have masculine orientation and women, primarily have feminine orientations. The hormones and the neurons and a lot of the evolutionary history is something we share. It's really important, I think, I just want to say to your listeners that even though we might seriously relate to enjoying the differences between the sexes and the specialization of the sexes, that this is all anchored on a very powerful notion that the sexes are born equal.
Chip: Yeah, I think what I'm hearing you say is that when you really look at the biology, at the evolution, at our common history, what you see is we are a species with a sex-divide meant to be partners.
Chip: That there's a complementary aspect to what it is to be male that is complemented by female. There's a complementary aspect about what it is to be female that is complemented by male. There's a natural partnership there and it is in that way that I think you're speaking about equality. Am I understanding you correctly?
Michael: Absolutely right. Exactly right. The world comes in pairs. It's just important that we understand and accept that individual members of these pairs have their own ways of doing it. By the way, there are men born nurturers and there are women who love competition.
Chip: Right. I was just going to say all that.
Michael: And certainly that's true and we're speaking in broad, general terms here. But absolutely, we prosper and wwe will reach our highest potential in the context of good, close intimate relationship. There's nothing like a good, solid, long-lasting relationship for sex, for anything. The trust gets build up and the sense of shared experiences so think that the sexes have a joyous future together, but we need to get there by understanding and honoring our terrific individual talents and abilities. We're living in a cuture that works hard to deny some of these distinctions that I think are so exquisite.
Chip: Yeah. Just a little shout out from a gay, lesbian, transgendered and intersex friend that I notice that when we have these conversations, I'm looking at a population of six or seven billion people, I'm looking at the center of that curve and reality is a lot more confused. You know, there's a whole lot more of choices. One of my favorite psychologists, Andrea Dworkin, wrote a sentence which I just love. She said that this system of gender polarity in our culture is real but not true. It's real; there's a male and a female. There's a truth here that there's a lot more than that we start talking about individuals and how individuals grow and who we are. I want to acknowledge that all that are true and there's a real value in looking at the broadest spectrum of the bell curve and seeing things.
Michael: Right. One very intelligent gay reviewer of my book said he felt I had to stick to the story, the central story which is what you are alluding to. We, all of us, gay and straight here, got through that dynamic but I think we're six billion souls. We don't all have to be breeders, there's no reason why we can't grant our gay, lesbian and transgendered citizens as much freedom to enjoy life as the rest of us.
Chip: Cool. Now I'm sure that after listening to all this, these people want to know where do I get that book? So these people who want to contact you or get your book, how do they do that?
Michael: Well, it's all over the Internet, in all of standard places. It's supposedly moving into the stores in September 2007 and if it's not on the shelf, it certainly can be ordered. The book's website is I think an interesting place for readers who may be a little into this and that. It's just thedisposablemale.com and there they'll find qute a few excerpts, outlines,there's an interview of myself and a little bio, and some resources for men and for women, and for people interested in evolution. That would be where they could go. There's even a way through that website to send me a note if they'd like to.
Chip: That's actually how I found you.
Michael: Fair enough. I'm pleased to hear from people. There you go, it's just been great talking to you and your audience.
Chip: Thank you so much for making the time. I really appreciate talking to you. Thank you so much.
Michael: All right.
Chip: As always we'd like to make sure that you have an exercise that you can do that come out from each of our interviews. Michael asked if I had one and so I'd like to suggest a nice little exercise on how we get to know each other a little better. Make some time, maybe half an hour or so when you will not be interrupted by phones or children, maybe after the kids had gone to bed, just talk and here's the thing that I really want to invite you to do. I want to invite you to sit with your partner and each of you share back and forth: one thing I love about being a man and one thing I really don't like about being a man, one thing I love about being a woman, one thing I really don't love about being a woman.
Just go back and forth taking turns. First, maybe the man goes one thing I love being a man and one thing I really don't like being a man. Then the woman goes, one thing I love being a woman, one thing I don't love being a woman. Then the man goes back and forth for a good 15 minutes. Just notice what you hear and notice what you say. Don't think about it too much. Just notice the first things that come to mind. Tell what love about your gender and what you don't love about being your gender and then talk a little bit about anything that surprised you or anything you were suprised you said, anything you're surprised at what you heard.
One of the ways that we can get past these differences that divide us and the past - these stories about men and women are different is when we share at a deep level some of the fundamental ways that we are actually very similar. So I want to invite you to try this exercise. Try it tonight.
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This brings us the end of another show. Thanks for listening and I'm sure we'll talk again soon. Thanks. Bye.
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