Book Summary: “Is There Anything Good About Men?” by Roy F. Baumeister

Title: Is There Anything Good About Men? How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men
Author: Roy F Baumeister
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

Baumeister explores the role that men played in creating human culture.

If you would like to learn more about how human societies have evolved, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Key Take-aways

  • Men and women are equal, but different. The differences between men and women is more about motivation than ability.
  • Human males, like most males in the animal world, are far more competitive and willing to take risks than females. They also have an urge to earn respect through their achievements and unique skills.
  • Human males have evolved a unique ability to cooperate with other males to compete against other males. Each male in the group has a specialized set of skills that make him unique and gives him a sense of worth.
  • This is the root cause of the evolution of complex social organizations, which play a critical role in human culture and progress.

Important Quotes from Book

In this book, I develop a somewhat radical theory about men and women. It holds that differences are rooted mainly in tradeoffs. If one gender is better at something, the superior ability will probably be linked to being worse at something else. Otherwise, it would be reasonable to expect that nature would have made both genders equally good at most things.

One of the most important traits that make us human is our ability to create and sustain giant social systems that can evolve and adapt and compete against each other. These systems are called cultures. I shall suggest that cultures routinely exploit men in certain ways, which is to say cultures find men more useful than women for certain tasks. We shall ask what those tasks are and why cultures pick men for those.

To simplify broadly, two main explanations have been put forward for why men have dominated culture and ruled the world. The first was accepted nearly everywhere until the twentieth century: that men were naturally superior to women. The forces that created human beings, whether they involved a divine power or the natural processes of evolution (or some combination), made men to be better and created women to help and serve men.

The second explanation was a reaction against the first. It said that women were not inferior to men on any meaningful dimension. Possibly women are superior, but definitely not inferior. Therefore, the difference in social standing had to be explained as oppression.

This book offers a third explanation.

It’s not that men are smarter than women (the first theory). It’s not that men are wicked conspirators against women (the second theory). It’s about some basic likes and dislikes. It’s rooted in how men treat other men, and how that is different from the way women relate to other women. It’s about how culture works. Due to an accident that just happened to be lucky for men, culture grew out of the way the men related to each other, more than out of women’s relationships. There were crucial tradeoffs: Women’s relationships were vital for some other things. Just not for constructing large systems, like a market economy, or a large team. Because culture grew out of men’s relationships—including competition, trading and communicating with strangers, and ample doses of violence—men were always in charge of it.

One goal of this book is to reinterpret the relations between men and women as more cooperative and complementary than antagonistic. I think most women don’t really see men as the enemy, except as taught by some highly politicized Women’s Studies classes. Likewise, most men don’t see women as their enemy.

The feminist view of what male society is all about is wildly off the mark.

I shall propose that men and women are different in some basic ways and that some cultures—successful ones—capitalize on these differences to outperform rival cultures.

Culture is humankind’s biological strategy. It is how people attempt to solve the basic biological problems that all species face: survival and reproduction. We have culture, a system that shares information, coordinates different tasks, and increases wealth. In general, we live vastly better in culture than we would live if we were suddenly left by ourselves in the forest and had to scrape by with our own muscles and wits.

Most cultures have had to compete against other cultures. To survive, a culture has to do more than provide decent lives for the men and women in it. It may have to accumulate the wherewithal to compete against other cultures. Competition can be economic, military, technological, or intellectual. Often it has been simply demographic: Larger groups typically prevail over smaller ones.

In short, cultures have challenges. To survive, they must use their men and women effectively. That does not necessarily mean using men and women in the same ways. In fact, most cultures have used men and women in somewhat different ways.

Yes, there are mostly men at the top. But if you look at the bottom, really at the bottom, you’ll find mostly men there too. These are the worst outcomes society has to confer. And in each case, men far outnumber women.

The fact that men outnumber women at both the top and bottom of society is an important clue to how culture uses the genders differently. Although in modern society women can be found in just about all walks of life, men still outnumber them at the extremes, and in the past this difference has been even greater.

In essence, we have been rebelling against the assumption of male superiority by going to the opposite extreme.

Whether we are talking about kindness versus cruelty, curiosity versus closed-mindedness, wisdom versus immature pigheadedness, self-control versus self-indulgence, or humility versus narcissism, there are more men than women at both the good and the bad extremes.

Men and women are thus alike in that both are distributed with the greatest numbers in the middle range and fewer at the extremes. But there are more men than women at the extremes. (And so there are slightly fewer men than women at the middle.) This pattern will be found repeatedly.

Most stereotypes are not just complete fabrications based on ignorance and hatred. Most of them have some fairly sizeable amounts of truth. Research by Lee Jussim and others has concluded that many stereotypes are far more accurate than most of us have been led to assume.

The way people check on whether their stereotypes are true is to look for confirming instances. You might say they try to establish whether their stereotypes are true but not whether they are false. This unfortunate trick of the mind has been dubbed confirmation bias. That is, people look for examples that confirm their beliefs more than they look for disconfirming evidence.

That’s where male extremity comes in. It is ready-made for producing opposite stereotypes, by working with the confirmation bias.

Different but equal is what hasn’t been tried. In this view, neither gender is superior to the other across the board. But there are real differences. It’s just that the differences cancel out in important ways.

The “different but equal” is a radical theory of gender equality. It gets to equality not by sameness but by tradeoffs. Differences survive because of these tradeoffs, in which a particular trait is well suited for one kind of task or contribution but its opposite has value for a different kind of task or contribution.

My strong impression is that modern social scientists, and probably modern citizens in general, do not adequately recognize how pervasive tradeoffs are. I can’t prove it, and it’s only an impression. But there is a relentless quest to find the right fix, the right mix, the single solution to any problem.

Often there is no single correct solution to a social problem. That is because of tradeoffs. The better you make things in one respect, the more of a problem you create in something else.

My radical theory of gender equality is based on tradeoffs.

The tradeoff theory of gender says there are real, innate differences between men and women, including differences in capabilities and in inclinations. To say the differences are innate means that they are rooted in biology, that people are born with these differences (at least as tendencies). Perhaps these inborn tendencies can be overcome in some cases, but men and women start off different. Culture can reduce the effects of nature, but in most cases, culture builds on nature. Small natural differences in inclination may become giant differences in society, such as ones in which women are all kept at home to care for children and men are all required to earn a living.

Biologically based differences are put there by evolution. Evolution proceeds across generations, because the more successful versions do better than their rivals. They live longer and better and, most important, they reproduce more.

This is why it is implausible that one gender is innately better than the other across the board. When there is a good way to be, everyone will be it. Two legs are better than one or three, and so everybody has two legs.

How well someone performs a task depends on two things about the person (plus some external factors such as luck). One is the person’s ability. The other is how hard the person tries. The latter, effort, is largely a reflection of the broad category of motivation. In plain language, motivation means wanting.

When women do take math and science, they generally do fine. But mostly they don’t sign up. That shows the difference in motivation. Women are less interested in taking those courses in the first place.

The correct answer has recently begun to emerge from DNA studies, notably those by Jason Wilder and his colleagues. They concluded that among the ancestors of today’s human population, women outnumbered men about two to one.

Two to one!

In percentage terms, then, humanity’s ancestors were about 67% female and 33% male.

In past eras, polygamy (one husband, multiple wives) was the norm.

Most women who ever lived to adulthood probably had at least one baby and in fact have a descendant alive today. Most men did not. Most men who ever lived, like all the wild horses that did not ascend to the alpha male’s top spot, left behind no genetic traces of themselves.

That’s a stunning difference.

I consider it the single most underappreciated fact about the differences between men and women.

For a woman, the path to success seems to have been fairly straight. There was little reason to take chances or strike out on her own. There was no reason to try to separate herself from what everyone else was doing.

In contrast, the average man was destined for reproductive oblivion. The option of playing it safe and doing like everyone else would have been a foolish one. Most of the men would fail to reproduce, and if you failed to surpass them, you would fail too.

That’s why we are descended from playing-it-safe women and risk-taking men.

Crucially, today’s men are descended disproportionately from those enterprising winners! The ones who took it easy and stayed home generally did not pass on their genes, and so today’s male population has no trace of them.

The optimal vehicle for a genetic experiment would have two characteristics. If the experiment is a failure, it should be quickly eliminated from the gene pool, so that the bad mutation doesn’t contaminate the species for many future generations. On the other side, if the experiment is a success, ideally it should spread quickly through the gene pool.

Males are much better suited for this role of nature’s guinea pig than females.

Nature rolls the dice more aggressively with males than females, because it is easier to capitalize on wins and cut the losses.

I think men compete mainly against other men. That has been the basic fact and driving force in the historical progress of human culture.

All over the world, people live in small social groups, usually embedded in larger social groups. And men have mostly formed and run those groups, especially the large ones.

You could make a case for women being the more social gender. In fact, that’s just what Cross and Madsen did. It misses a key point.

Women are indeed more social if you define “social” only in terms of one-to-one close, intimate relationships. But if you look at bigger groups, then men are more social than women.

Thus, the simple ideas that men are poorly designed humans, or that they somehow lack the need to belong, are silly… Women are designed for the small, intimate sphere of close relationships in which people connect one to one. Men are better designed for the large sphere in which there are more connections to more people. These connections aren’t as close or as intense, by and large, as the intimate relationships at which women specialize. But they are important in other ways.

Try this thought experiment: List as many large group activities as you can think of. Then ask yourself which gender tends to gravitate toward those activities. It is very difficult to come up with any kind of large group activity that appeals to women more than men.

The female style builds a few strong, close social bonds. The male style builds many weaker ones.

In intimate relationships, equality may work best… In larger groups and working groups, however, hierarchy is probably more effective if not essential.

Indeed, genuine equality is probably a cultural invention. Hierarchy is natural.

The larger the group, the more competition matters and pays… Large groups tend to bestow rewards unequally, giving bigger rewards to those who are better and do better. There are major advantages to being high in the hierarchy. You get up there by competing. You have to best your rivals, who want the same spot you do up near the top.

Men’s social groups thrive on having different men specialize in different roles. In this sense, human groups are rather different from animal groups, and in fact this is one of the things that distinguishes human culture from the way most animals are social.

To succeed in such a group, a person needs to become different from others by cultivating some special ability or skill.

For men, being different is a way to belong to others, a way to cement your place in the group.

Culture is a system with several purposes. The primary ones are to provide for the material needs of the people. A culture that fails to provide food and water, safety, and an opportunity to raise children will not survive. Nor will a culture survive if it cannot defend itself against its enemies, whether these be found in nature (illness, cold) or in other cultures (and their invading armies).

Another purpose of culture is to enable people to live together.

What makes us human—the evolved psychological traits that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom— is our competence for culture.

Culture is thus the key to human nature.

Culture is a multiplier. It makes your physical and mental abilities go much farther. That is, your same physical and mental capabilities allow you to make a much better life for yourself working within a culture than working without one. That’s what culture is good for, and why it is good for you.

A first and huge advantage of culture is the pooling and accumulating of information.

A second advantage of culture involves the division of labor. Instead of each person doing everything, each person does a different task.

The trend toward division of labor and specialization is one of the most universal and one-way trends in history. People specialize more and more narrowly. The reason is that it produces better and better results. You can see this everywhere.

Exchange is another key to culture—another source of system gain.

Accumulation of knowledge, division of labor, and trade are all vital means by which culture can make life better. But all of these advantages will operate more effectively in larger groups.

Men are more likely than women to create the kind of groups that will produce culture and its gains.

Competition between cultures intensifies the appearance that a culture wants and needs things. A culture that fails to encourage innovation or military fortitude might survive for a long time by itself with no rivals in sight, for example. But if a rival group appears with a different system that is better at promoting innovation and military success, the rival group will take over from the lackadaisical one.

Women took care of men by providing intimacy and love and physical care in close, intimate relationships, and they did the same with the babies. Men took care of women by participating in big group activities, which could accomplish things that lone individuals couldn’t, and which therefore enabled the man to bring back big game meat or whatever. That way the women benefited from the men’s group activities.

The upshot is that human culture emerged mostly from the men’s sphere… The emergence of culture from the men’s sphere was the basic cause of gender inequality.

As civilization progressed, men came to have higher status than women. This was not because women had some innate inferiority to men. Neither was it because of some conspiracy by the men to defraud and oppress women.

Men gained higher status because wealth, knowledge, and power were created in the men’s sphere.

The conventional wisdom emphasizes that women’s status declined as culture progressed. This is one way of looking at it, but it is flawed. The decline was relative rather than absolute. I have already pointed out that women actually became better off than their ancestors: Modern women live better than primitive women did. Women fared worse only relative to men… they simply failed to keep up with the advances in the men’s sphere.

Nor were they really trying to do so. The men were still quite willing to share the fruits of their cultural activities with women.

The creation of large social institutions was where the differences between men and women became huge and influential. The men formed armies, churches, corporations, unions, and governments. The women did not.

Women’s sphere provided necessities, whereas the men’s sphere provided optionals, including culture.

Crucially, all this production of culture in the men’s sphere was not produced by an alliance of all men against all women, as the Imaginary Feminist is fond of asserting. Instead, it was produced by alliances of some men working with each other and, crucially, against other groups of men.

Remember my point that gender differences are mostly in motivation, not ability? I think a group of a hundred women would have been just as capable as a group of a hundred men of building a ship and sailing off to explore. The difference is not one of ability. Women could have done it if they wanted to do so. But they did not want to do so. Women mostly do not do things in big groups.

Does that mean there has been no oppression?

The answer, I think, is that there probably has been some, but probably only a fraction of what has been accused and assumed. The amount by which men have oppressed women has been grossly overestimated, but it is not zero.

It is possible to interpret much of history as men oppressing women, especially if one does not look too closely and seeks only confirming evidence. But just as plausibly, one can spin a very different interpretation.

Here’s another possible way to tell the story. Women kept themselves conveniently apart from the brutal, risky, and often painful strife and competition. Men fought bloody battles. Other men risked their savings in commerce, with some making fortunes and others going bankrupt. Men fought, risked, struggled, sought, suffered, and triumphed. Women mostly kept out of that.

The fact that culture and institutions are male-created explains why they have been male-dominated and male-oriented. They were made for men, not as a deliberate ploy to exclude or oppress women, but simply because women were not involved in making them. They were made to function as well as possible so as to compete against rival groups and systems.

Because the groups and systems were full of men, they were made in ways that worked well with groups of men.

Women are fully capable of performing well in high-powered jobs in large corporations. And men are fully capable of changing diapers. It’s just that most of them aren’t really passionate enough about those things to be willing to make the sacrifices required for that kind of life.

Expendability is a central but underappreciated aspect of the male role. It contributes more than we realize to misunderstandings between men and women.

Ultimately, a culture will succeed best (again, in comparison with rival cultures) if it can enlarge the pie… Increasing the pie may, however, require innovation, testing, and indeed risky ventures. Hence the most pragmatic thing is for the culture to encourage people to take those risks by offering big rewards to those who manage to succeed at contributing something that will enrich or strengthen the culture as a whole.

Men are well suited to that sort of task. Men differ from each other more than women do, having more extreme versions on various traits, and so if the requirements for success are unknown but unusual, the odds are good that a man will be the best suited for whatever it is (by virtue of having extreme traits). Men are also expendable, so it is pragmatically acceptable for the culture to throw or lure a variety of men into undertaking risky ventures, without knowing which ones will turn out to have the requisite traits for success.

Manhood must be earned. Every adult female human being is a woman, but not every adult male is a man…  Boys had to prove something in order to become men.

At issue is respect. Our culture has a long tradition of treating women as automatically worthy of respect.

Not so for men. Men had to earn respect…  men in many organizations have put up with daily doses of disrespect until and unless they proved themselves worthy of respect. Put simply, a woman is entitled to respect until and unless she does something to lose it. A man is not entitled to respect until and unless he does something to gain it.

This is a terrifically useful system for enabling the culture to get the most out of its men.

The core achievement that defines manhood in a culture is that a man produces more than he consumes.

A woman is a woman no matter what she produces or consumes.

A man must produce enough to support himself and then something extra. The extra that he produces is most often earmarked to support a woman and children, of course. That is why being a provider is so central to the way women judge men and men judge themselves.

In a nutshell, a culture needs its most talented individuals to put forth maximum effort to contribute what they can to the cultural system. The less talented men, not so much. They should just do their dull jobs, pay taxes, occasionally show up for battle if needed, produce quality offspring, and generally stay out of trouble. But to prevail in tough competition with other cultures, a culture must milk its elite. Talent is there in either gender (though at the top levels, because of male variability, there will be somewhat more males).

If you want to see someone with a fine life of pampered ease and luxury, it won’t be the men at the top. If anything, look to the wives and children of these men. The pattern holds true even today. The men in the top echelons of the culture may amass fortunes and be able to buy beautiful houses with spectacular furnishings, but they have precious little time to enjoy them, because they are working long hours. More generally, the culture gets the most benefit if the topmost men work passionately hard to enrich it.

To make that kind of fortune, you have to be a workaholic, and workaholics are mostly men. Being a workaholic means that you don’t enjoy the fruits of your labor. However, your wife might.

Manhood means contributing.

The young male’s first task is to prove himself a man. To become a great man requires several more big and difficult steps in the same direction. The criteria are similar. He has to earn respect by achieving things that the culture values, which tend to emphasize things that strengthen and enrich the culture.

In a sense, the more men there are who strive for greatness, the better off the culture is.

Sure, there are easygoing, unambitious men. But in our evolutionary past, few of those were able to reproduce. Their more fanatically driven peers who strove for success were more likely to seize the top positions and impregnate the ladies. As a result, today’s men are descended far, far more from those fanatically driven males than from the laid-back ones. This is crucial to remember, and it is quite different by gender.

For many men, success and sex are intertwined. Young men spend much of their time wishing and trying to have more sex than they can get. One reason they buy into the system of work and achievement and playing the game is the implicit promise that if they do become successful, they will finally be able to have the women and the sex they want.

We must object to the view of men and women as antagonists.

From men’s point of view, women are neither the competition nor the enemy: In an important sense, they are the reward.

Today there is strong ideological pressure to deny that there are any differences and if any are found to erase and eliminate them, rather than to value them.

Let’s re-think this and lighten up. There are in fact some differences between men and women, and as I have said these have more to do with wants and likes than with abilities. Let men and women do what they want. Among other things, they want each other. They will work it out. They generally have.

Most of the history of the human race has involved men and women living and working together. As partners they have each contributed vitally to the flourishing of humankind. Partnerships work best with a bit of specialization. That’s ultimately why nature made men and women different.

  1. “The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution” by Cochran and Harpending
  2. “The Story of the Human Body” by Daniel E. Lieberman
  3. “The Gap: Science of What Separates Us from Animals” by Thomas Suddendorf
  4. “A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World” by Gregory Clark
  5. “The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility” by Gregory Clark
  6. “Meta-analysis of … twin studies” by many

If you would like to learn more about how human societies have evolved, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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