Sunday, July 13, 2008

Marianne Legato: Columbia professor delves into why women outlive men, and what to do about it


Back in the mid 1990s, while I was working on my first book, I read Warren Farrel’s “The Myth of Male Power,” published in 1993 by Simon & Schuster, and corresponded with the author a bit. At the time, his thesis corresponded with the ideas of polarity that I had learned at the Ninth Street Center in the 70s (see my review of Rosenfels on this blog in April 2006 (follow the archive links).

Last week, the Today show on NBC introduced Columbia University school of Medicine professor Marianne Legato, for a serious discussion about the problem that nature is most “unfair” to men, and as a result, women live almost eight years longer. Male preference is certainly a myth.

Here is the basic information as I usually format it in my reviews:

Author: Marianne J. Legato, MD, FACP.
Title: Why Men Die First: How to Lengthen Your Lifespan.
Publication: New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-230-60517-8. 252 pages, hardcover, 11 chapters, indexed.

She does go through all the biology. Because men carry the Y chromosome, they do not have a “backup” gene for many critical traits, so there is a substantially greater chance that something goes “wrong” resulting in some kind of developmental difficulty. From the days in the womb, females are stronger and “superior.” Conservative writer George Gilder had admitted this in the 1980s with his “Men and Marriage” book.

Of course, this translates to greater learning difficulties in school, particularly in the lower grades. Boys lag behind girls until the early teens, and the deficit is particularly significant with lower income children. She does go into some detail on some of the ways to help boys, such as separate gender education, which could be a greater challenge to teachers.

One occurrence that masks this fact is that many boys do very well at everything, particularly those from well-parented homes. So the fact that many do not gets overlooked (outside of the world of schools and teachers and “no child left behind”). There are biological explanations for how some boys do better than others. There is an advantage to developing more gray matter, and for the “pruning” and white matter development to go a little more slowly (and that is genetically controlled). Such boys may be better students and better rounded. Pruning is necessary to develop specialized gifts, whether music or athletics (like hitting a 100 mph baseball). You want the pruning to be effective without compromising the development of thinking, coordination, knowledge accumulation, and consequence calculation. In nature, it is a challenge but it does happen. Teaching methods do matter. In the best cases, yes, the teenage boy excels and seems like “Clark Kent” on Smallville (without the powers, which take too much pruning!).

Then there is the whole world of what makes men “tick” in terms of courtship, sexuality, reproduction, family. The natural world gives us plenty of “experimental” examples with other animals. Nature favors the male to have many female partners so that the largest number of genes are passed to favor the survival of the species or family in difficult circumstances. Nature also requires devoted mothers, and generally the mother needs a dedicated father. Nature experiments here (compare birds to lions and other big cats). There is a balance to be struck in having the most fit offspring born and survive. (Actually, the behavior of lion prides would make a good diversion, although she doesn’t go there.) Monogamous marriage is a social invention that, beyond providing stability with which to raise the young, seems essential for a progressive civilization (making man dominant over other species) and probably for some stable or sustainable notion of individuality.

All of this puts the young male in a bind. We expect him, on the one hand, to learn to be responsible for his actions (brain development, with the whole debate on when teenagers can learn to drive a car or even use the Internet). But we also expect him to compete and take risks in order to prove he is the most “suitable” father for children in the next generation. In the past, we have drafted him into the military and put the most fit male on the front line to fight our wars.

What Legato doesn’t cover in this book is the young men who are “different.” Homosexuality doesn’t appear in the index or get mentioned. But the obvious question is first, how “differences” probably relate to genetics and biology, and, moreover, how to account for the wide variety of subtle variations in ability that occur within males (and females) necessary to make a society dynamic and diverse.

The “male brain” is more concerned with abstraction and physical or spatial process; the female is more concerned with verbal communication, empathy, and social relationships. But this all does bring to mind “the Parable of the Talents.” Basic abilities and traits get transformed into all kinds of combinations. The young male, even if not that verbal or interesting in reading, may take to computers and engineering. (So can the young female, but I go on.) And perhaps as a late teen he’ll see more value in invention something (like an Internet application) that affects billions of people (and maybe makes money, even a fortune) than in having a family and biological genetic lineage right away. Hence, we have “the beauty and the geek.” Hence you get Facebook, Napster, even my doaskdotell, or a reverse-engineered iPhone. In fact you get Google. The list goes on. (Some of these could be created by older men, in fact. Music is interesting to think about, because it is still a non-verbal, somewhat “masculine” activity related to mathematical relationships.) He may go on to have a family, or he may not. But in a technological civilization, men move away from the models of gene propagation in the natural world. They may expect their personal relationships to express more polarity or creativity. They may or may not eventually set up conventional monogamous family life. There is all this social approbation for "husbands and fathers" but what does that mean for those of us who are not? You can't have it both ways.

There really is a moral problem in all this. Some of us are really not inclined to engage in risk-taking “male” behavior to impress mates. I wasn’t. I was talented in music and piano, but I was the “sissy boy.” I was pushed into learning “manly things” as a moral proposition. Otherwise, I would be dependent on others (all the steelworkers and firemen she talks about late in the book) to make the “sacrifices” for me. (Remember the debate in the 60s over student deferments from the draft?) Of course, I was less competitive in “masculine” pursuits probably because of Y-chromosome related matters beyond my control. Nevertheless, from the point of view of morality, I must be expected to “pay my dues.” I must take my turn and be prepared to sacrifice myself if necessary. That’s not to say that this is true for all nerds the same way it was for me, but generations younger than mine often did not have to confront this moral proposition the way I did. In fact, morality has become “conditional” on personal choice (the modern model of “responsibility for the consequences of choices” including the "choice" to have children, which my generation half-believed to be a prerequisite for humanity) much more than it was when I was growing up, when society was much more concerned about mandatory sharing of risks and obligations outside what an economic market would normally require. Indeed, geeks love the libertarian paradigm for “morality.”

In the later part of the book she discusses the details of male health maintenance (all the screenings for circulatory health, cancer, aging, etc, that are familiar). All of these might help bridge the gap between male and female longevity. She notes that the tendency for adults to live away from extended families is making it harder for seniors, but that would seem to affect women more if they live longer.

Still, in my own mind, we are left with a moral paradox. Men are expected to “submit” to the needs of their families and cultures by engaging in risky competitive behaviors and “liking it.” Some of us (again, possibly because of inborn biological traits related to the Y Chromosome) simply tune out of this whole expectation and find our own ways of activity and experiencing emotion. Then we are perceived as “cheating the system,” or of undermining the ability of “normal” men to make commitments and make sacrifices for us by exposing and judging their weaknesses. This could all lead to another book.

A good Internet source for some comparison material comes from the National Center for Men.

1 comment:

Jane Thompson said...

Warren Farrell is a great mind who saw the bigger picture of equality among the sexes. A feminist from the start, he saw the bigger picture after years of observation. Warren Farrell's books embody everything that he has believed in up to now. Women have been looking for equality for all that we've known. If citations were their only basis, then that would have been a stupid notion. Warren Farrell has been covering this argument since the '60s. In his research, he has dug deep into the mentality of women and men as well. Warren Farrell started as a feminist but, after years of observation, he played with the thought that understanding is better than equality. Try this little experiment, ask a female if she wanted the treatment of both sexes as equal, I guarantee you that her answer would be yes. Now, ask her what she would think about the government giving mandatory military call to women, like what men experienced during the war. I'm pretty much sure that she would be against it. In fact, I'm very sure that women would create a movement to abolish that bill. Talk about wanting equality. I rest my case.