strange behaviors

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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Die Laughing (The Male Advantage–part 5)

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 18, 2012

Fireman’s helmet from the World Trade Center collapse (Photo for National Geographic by Ira Block)

We are expendable.  Feminism to the contrary, everybody understands that it’s still a world where women and children come first.  And we’re o.k. with that, because when it comes to survival of the species (or the family) men are just not as precious.  But that context can sometimes make the modern urge to focus on female victims—while stepping gingerly past heaped-up male corpses—a little unseemly.  For instance, a recent New York State report on post-9/11 deaths among first responders at the World Trade Center solemnly noted that 13 percent of victims were women.  You had to go to a table to find out that the other 87 percent were … oh, never mind,

In the 1990s, a similar slant led the feminist writers Gloria Steinem and Naomi Wolf to report that 150,000 American women were dying each year from anorexia, to free themselves from “female bondage.”  Wolf wondered “How would America react to the self-immolation by hunger of its favorite sons?”  It was a good cause.  But a reporter checked with the National Center for Health Statistics and found that the actual number of deaths per year from anorexia was more like 100.  And as to how society would react if its sons were dying?   We already know that.  In 2010, 4547 Americans died in accidents on the job and 92 percent of them were … not women.  The death toll is even more skewed for policemen, firemen, soldiers, and even journalists.  And men are o.k. with all of that.  But if we are going to be expendable, our deepest wish is to go out in a worthy cause, and in the hope that someone will notice.

 We take risks just to be entertaining, too.  Wow, we really are stupid, aren’t we?  Let’s go back to our penchant for extremes.  From the fetal stage on, males respond more directly than females to environmental circumstances, both good and bad.  In the animal world, this results in greater variability of traits like stags’ antlers or peacocks’ tails. It’s evolution at work, sorting males into winners and losers, Big Daddies and Dead-Enders.  Meanwhile, females cruise through on an even keel.

Going to extremes, in all kinds of sensible and nonsensical ways, is how males try to stand out, win attention, even perhaps persuade a woman that we might not be all that expendable, after all.  It’s courtship behavior, says psychologist Geoffrey S. Miller, Ph.d., author of The Mating Mind.  Human culture has been dominated by males “because human culture is mostly courtship effort, and all male mammals invest more energy in courtship. Male humans paint more pictures, record more jazz albums, write more books, commit more murders, and perform more strange feats to enter the Guinness Book of Records.”  We come up with more Big Ideas (about 99.5 percent of all Nobel Prize winners have been men), we invent more stuff (we register about 94 percent of all patents) and we tell more jokes (most of us do not yet have our Nobel Prizes or patents, but GSOH, a good sense of humor, is one of the main things women look for in personal ads).

One Response to “Die Laughing (The Male Advantage–part 5)”

  1. Here’s one I just came across from the Veterans Administration. It notes that although “the majority of veterans are male, almost 6 percent of veterans are female.” That is, we are reluctantly willing to acknowledge that a little over 50 percent are males. But maybe the unnamed 46 percent are actually aliens? http://www.va.gov/VETDATA/docs/SurveysAndStudies/VETPOP.pdf

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