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Manthropology isn’t exactly science

October 22, 2009

In a stunning example of what happens when you mix science with unquestioned social constructions, an Australian anthropologist has put together a book called Manthropology: The Science of the Inadequate Modern Male. John Mehaffey, who wrote the Reuters article about it, calls the subtitle “provocative”. I call it ridiculous and almost as cringe-inducing as the neologism of the title proper. You see, according the book’s author, Peter McAllister, what makes modern man inadequate is that he lacks the abilities his ancestors (even his female ancestors) had in fields such as jumping, running, and arm wrestling.

European rhino beetle taking a walk on a concrete mixer by e³°°° on Flickr

The better man? Only by Peter McAllister's standards...

McAllister has so bought into the social construction which equates masculinity with physical prowess that he fails to note that the precise argument he uses to show illustrate the superiority of ancient and prehistoric man could also be used to prove that certain animals are better men. Certainly no human male can outrun a Cheetah, nor can any human male lift 850 times his own weight the way a rhinoceros beetle can.

So how exactly does such a silly argument get categorized as “science”? Admittedly, McAllister uses data consistent with science. His facts (insofar as I know) are not inaccurate; the problem is his interpretation. Inadequate is a value judgment and as such is not scientific. A real scientific interpretation would be that the requirements for survival in the modern day world are different from those faced by Neanderthals, Athenian oarsmen, or any of the other forebears McAllister mentions. Are modern males really any less adequate than their predecessors given that context?

Only if you unquestioningly accept the construction of masculinity as defined by physical ability (which has serious implications not only for gender-based discrimination but for ableism as well). Now, I suppose it could be argued that McAllister meant the title to be tongue-in-cheek, a touch of attention-getting hyperbole. The problem is that if  you make statements that support commonly held beliefs, such as this particular patriarchal concept of masculinity, then unless you take it to the point of satire, you are going to end up reconfirming those beliefs.

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  1. October 22, 2009 10:08 am

    I might describe Mr McAllister’s approach as “a trouble shared is a trouble halved”, and my response to it as represented in your post might be entitled “Inadequacy begins at home”.

    I think he’s using science in an attempt to give extra weight to his own feelings.

    As a male, I have sympathy with the modern male’s struggles with redefinition. On one hand, he wilts under a withering barage of criticism, much of which he knows to be thoroughly justified, about his reliance on patriarchal privilege, and his tendency to hold onto the power that gives him an easier life. On the other hand, there may still lurk within him a traditional inner self that feels he should be more macho than he is, while knowing that the strutting posturing of pretended machismo is a very fast track to ridicule. As you say, for those of us living in pampered affluent industrialised societies, there’s not much demand for rugged hunters, hewers of wood and drawers of water. Both sexes may have to reacquire these skills when the meter runs out, a scary prospect in itself.

    But what to do now?
    I claim absolutely no scientific basis for these remarks, but Mr McAllister’s and, by extension, the modern male’s problem, is to seek self definition by role model.

    Perhaps we need to worry less about what we should be, concentrating rather on the best way of living our lives constructively based on who we actually are. Individually, we have the skills we have, and we have the drives we have – we can’t be someone else.

    Let’s be the best we can be for one another and forget the labels.

  2. Jam es permalink
    December 20, 2009 11:55 pm

    This article is rediculous. Machoism or McAllisters’ feelings of inadequacy are really not the point. The fact is Homo-sapiens in the past were stronger, faster, and could jump higher. Industrialized man no longer meets these survival abilities. I don’t think masculinity has anything to do with modern mans’ lack of physical constitution. It sounds as if the author of this article has the problem with mans’ masculinity. very biased and anti-male.

    • December 21, 2009 11:55 am

      Jam es, would you care to engage with what I actually wrote rather than calling me names? I didn’t bring inadequacy into this discussion; it’s right there in the subtitle of the book being discussed.

      I’ll tell you what’s really anti-male: creating a concept of masculinity that most men cannot achieve and do not need to achieve. Why would a man today need to be as strong as early homo sapiens? He wouldn’t; he would be better off developing other attributes, so encouraging men to feel inadequate on that basis is, in fact, anti-male. Pointing out that there are probably better models of masculinity to follow for the present day is not anti-male.

      • Jam es permalink
        December 23, 2009 2:51 pm

        First, I do not believe I called you names, I was stating an opinion. Second, a males’ physical prowess is only one aspect of what makes a man. Mental acuity,getting along socially, and working together, are just a few of the qualities that a man would have to utilize to survive in the wild. All these traits are used in modern society by both men and women. In McAllisters article he seems to just be giving attention to the physical attributes, since antropology is a study of the physical records and evidence that past civilizations have left behind, McAllister can only make assumptions on that physical evidence. The evidence shows that in comparison to his ancestors, modern males are physically inferior. Physical prowess is a specific part of being male.(what does it matter if McAllister uses an inflamatory adjective to catch the eye of the reader?)
        McAlliser, while satirical and controversial as the title might be, I believe it is a wake up call to all industrialized societies. Eventhough it might not be needed for an individual to jump, run, and be as strong as previous humans, we should at least try and better ourselves in all aspects of life. A well rounded individual is emotionally, physically, and mentally stong. Satire is definitly the case in McAllisters book.
        The question should be, what is wrong with equating physical prowess with masculinity?

      • December 23, 2009 4:18 pm

        So saying I’m anti-male isn’t name-calling? That’s news to me.

        And you’re still missing the point. Words have meaning, you know. Stating that men are inadequate because they do not fit certain standards of physical strength isn’t just inflammatory: it implies that those standards are essential to masculinity even when those standards have nothing to do with present-day realities.

        McAllister didn’t have to make his exploration of the strength disparity between human ancestors and present-day humans about masculinity. He could have looked at other genders (since the evidence he cites clearly shows that women were stronger in the past too). His choice is highly problematic on the one hand because it fits into a broader pattern of social messages that encourage men to feel insecure about their physical abilities (which may lead to risky or violent behavior in order to prove those abilities) and on the other because it is deeply ableist. Is a man who is unable to engage in physical activities due to a disability any less a man? I don’t think so but by the standards displayed in McAllister’s title, he would be.

        Attitudes like McAllister’s hurt men. Pointing out the flaws of such stances does not.

  3. This catchy title permalink
    December 22, 2009 5:03 pm

    First we’d have to define what masculinity is? And whether or not that definition is a correct one.

    What I see masculinity as has something but not much to do with running, jumping, climbing trees (though there are elements of that). Masculinity is a mental thing a spiritual thing. The four most masculin attributes are Strength (Mental, Physical, of one’s Character, and the fortitude to stay cleave to one’s duty and ideals), Wildness (a drive towards individuality and independance), Dangerousness (a willingness to do engage in risky/dangerous behavior either arbitrarily or with an underlying purpose), and Passion (a drive toward action so strong its painful NOT to entertain it).

    Now, so that I’m not mis-understood, I believe Women have those same attributes but they’re expressed differently. And Women also have other defining attributes that are expressed differently by men. But this conversation is about masculinity and not frminity, therefore the discussion of feminity should be saved to a later point in the conversation.

    Now, Physical strength and ability IS a part of my conception of true masculinity but its one of many components, and while McAllister’s book is interesting (and from what I read tongue-in-cheek) it doesn’t adress complete manhood. Since it is written satirically, though, does it really matter?

    That’s my two cents.

    • December 22, 2009 6:56 pm

      That’s a rather long comment to leave on a post that you think is about something that doesn’t matter. While the book may well be intended as tongue-in-cheek, it really can’t be defended as satire. Check out the Reuters article: it’s being regarded as, if not entirely serious, containing valid statements. Successful satire doesn’t just repeat the opinions it intends to satirize but, rather, presents them in a way that even those who normally hold those opinions find objectionable. Read “A Modest Proposal” for an example.

      As for your own personal definition of masculinity, I’m not really sure what you’re basing it on or how it’s supposed to be meaningful. You say the traits are expressed differently in men than they are in women but refuse to explain how; if you’re going to try to define masculinity in opposition to femininity then you actually do need to talk about both. The impression I get, however, is that you are merely repeating cultural and media constructions of idealized manhood.

      The truth is that there is no single “true manhood”. There is no single true form of any sex or gender. Different societies expect different things of women and men at different times and in different situations. You’ll find that the traits you have described are, today, expressed differently in different individuals within every gender.

  4. Don permalink
    December 22, 2009 7:50 pm

    If we break strength down to categories of physical and mental I would have to say that:

    1. Physical strength: Men of today don’t have to be as physically strong as the prehistoric men. Survival is just not dependent on physical strength anymore. Instead it is more dependant upon mental strength.

    2. Mental strength: In my opinion I think that women have the advantage over men in this category. I read an article that said by the year 2020 for every 100 men earning B.A. degrees there will be 156 women earning B.A. degrees. This is a drastic change from the numbers in the 1960’s and 1970’s when men far outnumbered women in the college enrollment figures. Now, while women are excelling in the classroom and completing their degrees men are either dropping out or not even pursuing higher education at all. Men will not be able to continue to hold the top level positions that they once did. And with the declining graduation rates of men it is going to get more and more difficult for men to compete against women in the workforce. Without an education, men are being forced into either good paying manual labor jobs or remaining stagnant in the low level jobs. And at the rate that women are earning degrees they will be increasingly bypassing their male counterparts and moving into the higher level “decision-making” positions.

    • December 22, 2009 8:26 pm

      Actually, both men and women are more likely to go to university and to graduate than they were in the past. It is just that the numbers have increased more over the last few decades for women.

      Moreover, it would be a mistake to assume that the greater improvement among women is necessarily to do with any essential quality. In 2006, two national studies in the US showed men in college studying less and socializing more than their female counterparts. The social expectations that allow and encourage this have an impact on how many men succeed in higher education.

  5. Don permalink
    December 23, 2009 8:13 pm

    Elizabeth: I read the 2 studies that show that men are studying less and socializing more compared to women. And you are right that it is the social expectations that allow and encourage this and it is having a negative impact on the number of men that succeed in higher education. I also read an article (also from 2006) about the men in Jamaica having a very difficult time succeeding in higher education. In fact, women make up 70% of the students at the higher education level. Women also make up 80-90% of law school students. The men are just not expected to advance to the higher level of education…and when they do they are having a difficult time. One of the male students said that he feels intimidated sometimes by all of the women he has to compete with in the class room.

  6. Jam es permalink
    December 27, 2009 11:36 pm

    Ok, If you read my post again you will see that I didn’t say you were anti-male, The article was what I was referring to. If I wanted to insult you I would have openly admitted it. You know, the fact that you are obsessing about my comments tells me I have hit a chord.
    The definition of masculinity is traits that are masculine. Masculine means traits that are male and not female. Please name me traits that do not have to do with physical ability that also do not apply to females(appearance and anatomy exempt).
    I believe the greatest threat to males are individuals like you, that constantly emasculate men through political correct speech and social peer pressure. Constantly tearing down the traditional masculine ideal and the disturbing popularity of the broken family have hurt men far more than any satirical book that is more than likely a irrelevant media. Probably, of all the media and social pressures that males deal with daily, books seem to be the least affective at changing the national crime rate.
    Also, are you a man? Elizabeth does not sound like a mans’ name. If you are a female would you oblidge me in explaining how you know how a man feels about anything. I don’t believe you are in any position to speak for any man, including disabled men. Hurt feelings are the least our of societys’ problems.
    Political correctness is a social disease.

  7. alexander permalink
    December 28, 2009 10:52 pm

    well my 2c is that the author of the book is 100% on the money. Yes his tone may be tongue in cheek, but at the core this is a very serious issue. This is about the degradation of the human genome. Physical weakness is a big deal. You can make all the arguments you want that we don’t need to hunt or run or blah blah like we used to. But as an outside observer would “easily” be able to determine when analyzing the human species……..we’re not exactly healthy. Isn’t there a medium ground here? Could we not adopt modern society where men didn’t have to engage in blood sport just to mate, but we keep some of that old “beast” that made us the healthy robust individuals of the past?? Some people are only engaging in surface discussion based on modern interpretations of paradigms such as “what IS masculinity/femininity”……those questions are irrelevant as both sexes have become weaker and more reliant on modern pharmaceuticals to be healthy. This is “bullshit” in case any of you are wondering where I stand on that. And what’s more, it’s virtually impossible to get yourself out of this genetic “hole” that’s been dug for us. So yeah, it’s a pretty big f***ing deal that humans in general, not just men, are weaker-run slower etc, etc. A wiseman said “when the computer takes over everything, what will you be?”. And the answer is NOTHING!! This isnt’ about how much you bench, it’s about the loss of our spirit. It’s a shame that people don’t get that.

    • Jam es permalink
      December 29, 2009 2:02 pm


  8. Jam es permalink
    December 29, 2009 2:06 pm

    Also, on the boys and school performance, this is a great article that discusses the issue fairly and from a reputable source.

  9. alexander permalink
    December 30, 2009 2:27 pm

    could you summarize that article james? I don’t feel like signing up for the nytimes at this moment…lol. Unless there’s a way to see it without having to sign up for anything…..??

    • Jam es permalink
      December 30, 2009 5:06 pm

      Yeah, I looked at the link again and it didn’t let me look at it either. If you google war on boys, the first thing that pops up is the article form the Atlantic. This one is free to look at anytime. Ill also, post the link.
      It pretty much gives the reasons why boys are socializing more and doing poorly in school. Instead, of just superficially looking at the issue.

  10. steve permalink
    January 22, 2010 4:29 pm

    the point of the book is that before if you didnt run at 25 mph you were dead, or starving. if you didnt jump 6 feet over a fallen tree branch to chase after the deer you were hunting, than you starve. if you didnt wrestle a predator to the ground with brute strength, you were dead. so the gene pool was made up of the strongest, and fastest people because they were the only ones who could survive in the wild. hes not saying that thats was masculinity is, hes just saying that compared to that gene pool which supported maybe 100,000 hunter-gatherers, today in our farming society we have a gene pool of close to 7 billion, and the slow and weak people are able to survive. not that that is a bad thing, its just a reality. we dont run or walk for nessecity but for leisure or excercise. we dont use our strength for its intended purpose but instead to attract a mate, or become healthy. before being healthy wasnt a choice, it was a rule of survival. hes not saying were worse people, but that because we have had 10 thousand years of farming we now have lots of people who would never have survived in the wild. look at when the europeans went to africa, australia, and the America’s. they found lots of hunter-gatherer tribes who were composed of the strongest, fastest individuals. even still today you dont see too many fat african hunter-gathering tribes. there usually fit, tall, can run very fast, and are unusually strong for there size. a 140 pound hunter gatherer is as strong as most body builders because they have to be the best of the best to survive. hes not saying there better, but that because of there circumstances there gene pool was full of the physically best, and they were pushed to the limit just for daily survival.


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