Lionel Tiger and Helen Fisher are both Rutgers anthropologists. Both have new books out. And both are pissing people off. Tiger’s book is called The Decline of Males (Golden Books/St. Martin’s, 323 pages, $23). Fisher’s might well be called The Ascent of Females, but she chose instead to update Simone de Beauvoir and call it The First Sex (Random House, 378 pages, $25.95). Although they’re in the same department at the university, they say they didn’t intend for their books to come out together and be so complementary. “We hang out together from time to time, but we don’t do anything directly together,” Tiger tells me, and Fisher, on the day the three of us got together last week, had to admit she hadn’t read Tiger’s book yet.
Still, the two books are remarkably consistent with each other. Both work from a simple-sounding but politically highly controversial premise: that the biological differences between males and females are not just the obvious physical ones, but psychological and behavioral as well. According to this view of human evolution, for a couple million years our ancestors were hunter-gatherers—the men hunting, the women gathering. Interpretations are variously nuanced: In the old Desmond Morris model, the men were killers, the women baby factories; to Fisher, they were more cooperative, like two-earner households—he brought home the meat, she the veggies.
At any rate, from this division of labor we developed different skills and behaviors that, passed down by successful males and females over countless generations, became genetically hardwired in us. The agrarian revolution happened only a few thousand years ago, the Industrial Revolution only a few hundred. So society as we know it now is just a wafer-thin overlay on what sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson dubbed our “deep history.” In many basic ways, men still think and act like hunters, women like gatherers.
This notion that people are fundamentally different on the biological level is, of course, anathema to feminists and other progressives who have based a large part of their efforts for social equality on refuting or ignoring precisely these differences. Think of the storms that raged over The Bell Curve, or the suggestion that some homosexual behavior may have an actual physical locus in the brain (a far more complex argument, politically; in no other arena of human behavior has the nature/nurture question been debated with more heat, and maybe less light). When men act like men and women like women, progressives must insist that it’s because of their (capitalist, patriarchal, homophobic) social conditioning, not their genes. It’s (capitalist, patriarchal, homophobic) society, not biology, that teaches boys to be aggressive and play with guns, girls to be collaborative and like to cook. The hunter-gatherer past the evolutionists write about so much is pooh-poohed as a kind of Flintstones reverie based more on a contemporary suburban model (he hunts, she cooks, the Beaver and Bam-Bam trudge off to flint-chipping school) than the archaeological record. Just last Friday, Salon posted a feature story reiterating this position, though it curiously fails to mention either Tiger’s or Fisher’s book.
Since Tiger’s landmark Men in Groups of 1969 (wherein he launched the term “male bonding” into the vulgate) and Wilson’s Sociobiology in ’75, if you’re into sociobiology, evolutionary psychology or human ethology (Fisher’s attempt at a less ideologically charged term) you risk being accused of being a racist, a sexist and/or a reactionary tool of the status quo—with slurring references to eugenics, Social Darwinism and Nazi racial theory often thrown in for good measure. And it’s not just feminist extremists; Stephen Jay Gould was the one who all but called Wilson a Nazi in the mid-70s.
A “shabby accusation,” Tiger says. Gould “is a fine writer and a wonderful scientist and all of that, but when you get to politics—with the exception of his work on [cultural biases in] IQ tests, with which I agree—I think he allows his ideological precepts to color what he might see.”
Tiger writes this all off as “the modern way of avoiding dealing with human nature.” Fisher agrees. “Anybody who says biology and culture don’t go hand in hand—well, it’s remarkable that people cannot grasp a very simple concept.”
Unopposed, I do think the evolutionists would overplay biology and undervalue the rich stew of cultural influences we’re all immersed in. In the more extreme formations, their theories can sound like a kind of Scientific Calvinism: Biology Is Destiny.
In their new books, neither Tiger nor Fisher is shy about making those broad generalizations and sweeping statements that drive their opponents so nuts. Both now contend that human society is currently undergoing a sea-change that will completely alter the relationship between the sexes. The female is in the ascendant. The 21st century will be feminized and female-centric.
Why? Tiger argues that this is primarily because of the Pill. (He’s laid out some bits of this in his NYPress “Human Follies” column.) For the first time in human evolution, contraception is privately held by one party. This revolutionized the core relationship between males and females. Soon after, abortion became widely available, and households run by single-mother breadwinners boomed. Men are suddenly less important to the child-rearing equation; indeed, advances in reproductive technology mean men don’t even have to be around for conception to occur. Women are flooding into colleges—55 percent of college students are now female—and into the job market. Around the world, figures show that men’s incomes are declining, women’s increasing. More and more, Fred Flintstone is finding himself out of a home, out of a job, out on the periphery, a surplus being.
Fisher’s spin is more go-girls positive. She too says women have become more independent of men and are flooding into the workforce, but she doesn’t see them pushing men out. She envisions a “collaborative society,” in which men’s and women’s unique skills are complementary. Men will continue to do what they do best—the linear, competitive, aggressive, technological, engineering, heavy-lifting, killing jobs—while women run the information and communication sectors, the health and services industries, and generally make the world less hierarchical and competitive, more laterally organized, networked, multi-tasked and cooperative. Clearly the world is already moving in the latter direction, opening up vast new areas in the economy where women’s natural talents will shine.
Despite the topspin, I note, this may not be a message that goes over well with the ladies at Ms.
“Yeah well, they’re being dishonest,” Fisher shrugs. “I’m telling the truth. They are either dishonest or ignorant… There is an awful lot of data showing that [men and women] are different. I am really in the business of saying it like it is.”
Who wants to hear it? Tiger made the cover of the current Harper’s—a debate that pits him against an exasperated and badgering Barbara Ehrenreich. She tells him, “I personally resent the fact that I can’t even open up the subject of human evolution with my feminist friends without wasting half an hour refuting you.” He replies that he can’t decide whether to be “flattered or deeply depressed” by that.
And The Decline of Males and The First Sex were both angrily slagged in Kirkus, quite possibly by the same anonymous women’s studies grad, who dismissed Tiger as a well-known enemy of the people and henchman for the hegemonic patriarchy, and denounced Fisher’s book as a “pat biological rationalization for the purportedly improving position of women under the economic conditions of global capitalism… The kind of biological essentialism she is peddling merely rationalizes capitalist exploitation of women…”
That “had to be a woman,” Fisher tells me, “and she had to have been a postmodernist Marxist deconstructionist feminist, because this person was determined to believe that women have always been dominated by men, that they’re dominated by men now and that they will be dominated by men. Her conviction was so embedded in her matrix of reality that there was no way she could embrace a book that says women have certain skills that predominate.”
Fisher smiles when I say it’s interesting how the tone of her book is up-with-females and Tiger’s is down-for-males.
“I think that men tend to take a more win-lose attitude to things,” she says. “You can really see it in business. Women tend to have a win-win attitude.” While boys are wrestling and brawling, girls “are out on the playground building these little egalitarian societies. Here Lionel and I are seeing exactly the same situation, and he sees the rise of women as the decline of men, and I see the rise of women as both sexes winning. My last chapter is called ‘The Collaborative Society,’ and if there ever was a time in evolution when men and women have the chance to make happy marriages the time is now. Lionel and I have all the same data, and here he is taking the male attitude while I am taking the female attitude.”
Fisher likes to pop things at you like, “Did you know that a woman’s ability to find a car in the parking lot is twice as good during menstruation, when the levels of estrogen are at their lowest?” This brings up her interesting take on menopause. Menopause has traditionally been seen as a terrible point in a woman’s life, the end of her fertility—the end of her purpose, as it were, which is to reproduce and nurture. To Fisher menopause empowers mature women, by lowering estrogen levels and “unmasking women’s natural levels of testosterone,” making them more assertive and aggressive. I tell her how unusual it is to see it played that way, as a positive.
“I’m not in the good-bad business,” she responds flatly. “I am in the business of assembling data to understand where we are heading. And there is absolutely no question that in societies around the world menopausal women become more powerful… It’s always been attributed to the fact that—and there is no question about it, there is a cultural component—they are no longer raising small children and they can network. But it’s also common knowledge that with women [after menopause] levels of estrogen go down and levels of testosterone go up—you see it, the voice gets lower, they start to put on more weight around the waist, more hair on the face—and they are more assertive.”
In anthropology there’s the “grandmother hypothesis,” the theory that older women make huge and not always attributed contributions economically, and as repositories of accumulated wisdom and knowledge. And as the “graying of America” continues and people continue to live longer and more actively, Fisher believes this grandmother effect will be an important factor in the ascent of females.
I note that women also tend to outlive men because the men are all stressing themselves into heart attacks at the office.
“No, that has nothing to do with it,” Tiger counters. “Men just die because they are more fragile.”
“A lot of women always say that women get all the boring jobs,” Fisher agrees. “Well, men get all the dangerous jobs. Ninety percent of deaths on the job occur to men. I mean, do you wanna be dead or do you wanna be bored?
But in terms of evolution, why is that? That the men get all the dangerous jobs?
“They are the more expendable sex,” Fisher says. “Woman is the custodian of the egg. Sperm are cheap, eggs are hard to find. This is why we send our boys to war, not our girls. I mean, you don’t have to be a Darwinist to know that the male is the one that is built to protect and defend.”
What about the breakdown of gender roles in the workplace, I ask. Doesn’t that argue against this male-female division-of-labor theory?
Fisher contends that “they haven’t broken down as much as one might think. I mean, 95 percent of garbage collectors are still men, and 95 percent of nurses are still women.”
Sure, but what about all those male airline stewards—even granting that many seem to be gay? And male nurses? Those are switches in the traditional gender of certain professions.
“And editors and writers are 50 percent male and female,” Fisher agrees, as are “economists, sociologists, librarians.” Still, she says, “now you would expect to see 50-50 everywhere, but you don’t.”
That’s because, they both agree, there are simply certain jobs, certain roles, that males and females tend to gravitate toward. “I have so far not seen a single garbage lady,” Tiger notes, prompting Fisher to relate how a friend recently used the construction “doorperson” instead of doorman; it may be politically correct, but it’s cognitively incorrect. “Doorperson!” she scoffs. “I have never seen a doorwoman in my life.”
As a more significant example, she notes that “only 10 percent of the American Senate is women, only 13 percent of the House is women, in the whole 20th century only around 25 women have become heads of state. How come?… We are not, in primary school, saying to the boys and girls, ‘Only boys should go into the Senate.’”
So what does she think it is? “It’s testosterone-related,” she replies.
“There is no question that women have figured out a much better way of dealing with their own interests politically,” Tiger adds. Rather than run for office themselves, they “vote for whoever supports their interests… Women are saying, ‘Why should I go out there? I’ll just vote for the guy who is going to do what I want.’”
“And they are going to do it more and more,” Fisher agrees.
But hasn’t society been, in fact, “patriarchal”? Isn’t it obvious that men have dominated the working world, and hasn’t it only recently begun to change because women are making it change?
“No,” Fisher replies, “that is because society made it change.
“The Industrial Revolution changed society, and with that women left the farms and went for the money, and an urban economy enabled women to move into the workforce and use their skills. No, women have not driven history—technology and the economy have driven history.”
“Molly Haskell, who teaches film studies at Columbia, is a feminist,” Tiger says. “And at the beginning of the term she bans the term ‘patriarchy.’ It’s a gaseous term…
“When I was growing up in the 50s,” he goes on, “the deal was if you got reasonably good grades you got to go to college… Then you tried to find some kind of job. And if you met some woman and she decided that you were acceptable to her, then you would marry her. She would work for two or three years, and then have some children [and become a housewife]. For the rest of your life you would give her and the children all of your money, until you died. Now, at the time I didn’t think it was unfair for me to have to work, and she didn’t think that it was unfair for her to not work.”
“It was for her a career choice,” Fisher agrees, “and the most important one that she had to make, which was to find the right guy.
“It was the deal of life. You couldn’t operate as a single individual. To assume that that is a patriarchy based on a conspiracy to make all men work till they croak to support women and children is ridiculous.”
The differences between the 1990s and the 1950s are real, and tremendous. In 1955, as Tiger cites in his book, 60 percent of American households were the traditional Pleasantville kind: Dad worked, Mom stayed home and they raised two-to-three kids together. Today, he writes, “barely 4 percent of families boast this form.” Except for the very poor, virtually all women get jobs and pursue professional careers now, two-earner and single-parent households are the norm, half of all marriages end in divorce, etc., etc.
Yes, but forget the 50s, Fisher tells me. The Leave It To Beaver era is always held up to be the nostalgic template for and model of the Traditional American Family: the (in more ways than one) nuclear family as a kind of ideal form from which we have increasingly strayed since the introduction of the Pill, the Sexual Revolution, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights and all those other evil influences.
The 50s weren’t the norm, Fisher says: The 50s were an aberration, caused by the baby boom following the return of all those GIs after WWII. For decades leading up to the 50s, she says, the rise of the industrialized urban economy and death of the old-fashioned agrarian one was trending society away from that nuclear family unit. More and more women were working, couples were having fewer children.
“It wasn’t until after WWII we had a very strange decade in which we had this back-to-the-family [thing]. It was totally an aberration. And in 1960 we started returning to the trends. We have more women in the workforce, fewer children, later marriage. The economy has drastically changed.
“This has nothing to do with the women’s movement,” she argues. “The women’s movement is a response to the economic times, not a stimulus to it.”
On the other hand, Fisher notes, “even today, in this society, 91 percent of men and women marry by age 45. In every society on record, over 90 percent of men and women do marry, regardless of what the cultural barriers are.. [T]he family is not becoming obsolete, it is changing, it is reforming itself into a more egalitarian system.”
Tiger disparages attempts of the last 25 years to legislate that gender egalitarianism through quota systems based on the premise that to be equal we must all be identical, that sex differences (and other kinds) must be ignored. He does a lot of consulting with the military, and he claims that the new male-female military represents “a lose-lose situation. The Serbs don’t have any of these fancy seminars where everyone sits around and talks about their feelings, they just wanna go out and kill. When you are dealing in a competitive arena, you cannot really afford those egalitarian structures that the military is thinking of. They have had very serious problems now, actually recruiting problems. The Navy can’t recruit people.” The fact is, he says, if you’re in the new, male-and-female Navy, cooped up on an aircraft carrier for six months, “and you’re 19, based on millions of years of evolution you’re going to have some sex—but you will get fired if you do it, and you will go to prison.”
“I agree,” Fisher says. “Anywhere that men and women meet they are going to flirt. We were not built to sit in the same 10-by-10 cubicle and work on a computer—we were built to pick each other up, and we do.”
Yeah, but every office is a hotbed of romance, and corporate America doesn’t grind to a halt. Why can’t it work in the military?
“Because there is a difference,” Tiger says. “At the office you can go home, but in the military you are already home.”
He says staffing is another huge headache. An aircraft carrier, for example, is an incredibly compact society, with room for exactly X crew precisely trained to do X jobs. Now crewman Jane gets pregnant “and has to be taken off the ship. Very often she cannot be replaced. For one thing, they are configured for women, they have a certain amount of bunks for females and a certain amount for males. So if a female leaves you have to replace her with a female.” Not just someone with the same precise skills she has, but a female with those same skills.
And then there’s his male bonding thing. Throw a woman into a group of soldiers all hopped up and ready to kill, he argues, and you invite disaster. “You put one woman in a group of Special Forces guys, they just don’t know how to handle it. They can’t.” He points out another conflict at the very heart of the male-and-female military: how the young people who enlist, mostly poor, see the military as an opportunity. For poor young males, it’s an opportunity to get a job, get educated, learn skills, see the world. For young females, it’s an opportunity to be immersed in an environment filled with numerous working, educated, skilled young men…to date and marry.
Because of wrongheaded feminist ideas, Tiger grouses, “This whole country has adopted the idea that men and women are identical.”
“And that’s dangerous,” Fisher says.
“Completely dangerous,” Tiger agrees. “Insanity. It’s the same as saying that 60-year-olds are the same as six-year-olds, and putting two-year-olds in situations where they are allowed to drive. We understand age when we are dealing with populations, but with gender we are not allowed to. I think it has a kind of surrealistic quality to it…
“[T]he ideology is that there should be just as many women in every field as men, and that any deviation from that is a sign of conspiratorial rejection of women. Some of which is true, but certainly not all of it. Where we have failed ourselves is conceptually, because we have created an ideology of equality equals similarity, which is more profoundly foolish than the Marxist one [was].”
“Same is equal,” Fisher agrees. “We can’t seem to cope with the fact that we can be different but equal.”
I’m good at multitasking. Are they saying I’m a pussy? And my wife is great at reading maps, but women aren’t supposed to be good at that. Aren’t we living refutations of Fisher’s entire theory?
She gives me a kindly smile and says, “That’s stupid… We are not talking about my behavior, or Lionel’s behavior, or any individual’s behavior.” Rather, they’re talking population curves. We all deviate from the curve to varying degrees, but we all have a place on the curve, and all our individual behaviors add up to broad population behaviors.
Asked what he thinks is going to become of all the surplus males he sees being disenfranchised in Fisher’s futurama, Tiger waxes doleful. From North Africa to the skinheads in England, he contends, “you find a lot of very angry, violent young men, and I think that’s because there is nothing they can do that gives them the stereotypical notion that they’ve got a decent life. All of that’s gone. [It's been estimated that] only about a third of working-class men can ever hope to have income levels that allow them to live the way that their fathers did. They simply can’t. And the woman has a much greater opportunity when he dies.”
So is he saying that there are only so many jobs out there, and if women are getting more of them more men are going to lose them, and then all these guys are going to be out roaming the streets all day?
“They are not only doing that, they are turning to three new industries which are phenomenally powerful,” he replies. Men, he frets, are becoming mindless consumers of sports, porn and drugs, “which are largely male-consumed, an industry in which now gangs have more money than governments. You have a situation where men can either go and watch games, or watch a woman expose her genitalia, or do drugs. This is not a plan for which you would have thought the community would have prepared itself.”
Fisher sticks with her lighter take. She concedes that today’s fastest-growing career tracks—they include child care, health care, business services—”are all dominated by women. This is shattering for men.” Still, she insists, somebody’s going to have to design and build and service all the VCRs men are watching all that sports and porn on, and that’s going to mean jobs for men, because men are more adept at those technical skills. Men will continue to want the top government, military and corporate jobs, she says, and women will by and large continue to let them have them.
And then, I suggest, there’s always going to be brute labor.
“Oh yeah,” Tiger responds sarcastically. “Garbage men and beer truck drivers and carpenters. But remember, 55 percent of the population in college today are women, and it’s going up all the time. So presumably when women get through going up into the rest of the organizational structures they will want those jobs, too. I am really interested in what the men are doing who are not in college. Women in the old days could always get married and have a baby, but these days I don’t think women are going to marry someone who wants to stay home and take care of the babies.”
“They’re not,” Fisher agrees. “They’re choosing not to. They’re choosing to have the baby by themselves, or have the baby later.”
“I continue to define real disabilities in men’s capacity to adapt,” Tiger frets. “I don’t think they can adapt. For example, women are very quick to take part-time work, mainly because they have other things to do. Men cannot do part-time work because they feel underemployed.”
“And from a Darwinian perspective they don’t get to the top, which they need to do in order to get the women,” Fisher adds.
“And therefore by being part-time employees they are being part-time men,” Tiger says, “and they can’t stand it. So they don’t do it… [S]o they float around on the outside of the community, and what is happening is the males are floating on the periphery and the real community is run by the women and the mothers.”
“Well,” Fisher says, “they are going to know what to do with themselves. They are going to pick up guns and fight on the playground, and they’re going to love women, and they are going to try and protect them, and they are going to be doing math. They are going to be boys.”
Afterwords George Tabb and his attorney
Andrew Krents went last week to the downtown offices of Donovan & Yee, trademark counsel to Houghton Mifflin, for Tabb to be deposed in the Curious v. Furious George case. (You remember: Houghton Mifflin, publisher of the Curious George books, is opposing Tabb’s attempt to trademark his band name, Furious George. The case, being heard by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, is now in the discovery phase.) I’m told Tabb went in his everyday punk rock clothes—black leather jacket, black women’s stretch jeans and black sneakers. He also began the deposition with punk rock attitude, wagging his finger at opposing counsel and declaring: “I want to say one thing for the record. I want you to listen to me: I did not have sexual relations with that monkey.”
That’s typical of Tabb’s what-the-fuck, mouse-that-roared approach to this whole case. It’s carried him farther along than I’d’ve expected.
Meanwhile, Houghton helpfully shoots itself in the foot. The publisher’s contention that innocent consumers might mistake Furious George records for authentic Curious George materials (presumably a prelude to a standard trademark-dilution argument) was dealt at least a glancing blow by David Handelman’s “Bookend” essay in The New York Times Magazine two Sundays ago (May 16). It was called “Curiouser and Curiouser.” Handelman complains, as a reader and a father, that Houghton Mifflin itself has diluted Curious George’s authenticity—and has been doing so for years.
As it turns out, only a tiny handful of Curious George books—seven in all—were actually written and illustrated by the originators, Margaret and Hans Rey. Following her husband’s death in 1977, Ms. Rey approved a series of no fewer than 24 knockoffs, and just before her death in 1996, authorized eight more.
“[D]espite the creators’ names and the familiar yellow covers on the eight newly published Curious George titles,” Handelman notes, “it turns out they were actually illustrated by a computer firm and were written by someone who wishes to remain anonymous—and the books read that way.” The estates of Dr. Seuss and of Kay Thompson (of Eloise) have also authorized posthumous knockoffs and merchandizing. “In today’s marketplace, it seems as though authors can be regarded almost as nuisances who, while they are alive, needlessly limit their own earning potential,” Handelman observes.
Houghton Mifflin “contend[s] that the resulting byproducts aren’t misleading anyone. ‘There were seven original Curious George books; they are complete and distinct,’ Anita Silvey, the publisher of Houghton Mifflin Children’s Books, told me recently. ‘And if you were to look at them, you would know them instantly.’”
Krentz may not want to try to build a legal case on the obvious ironies here, but it strikes me as awfully squiffy for Houghton to complain that a punk rock band may be misleading consumers away from the “real” Curious George product, when Houghton is busy flooding the children’s bookshelves with its own knockoffs and inauthentic—I’ll use Handelman’s lovely word for them—”byproducts.” At least Furious George actually likes kids; Curious George’s handlers just seem to want to make an extra buck off them. Who’s doing them the disservice here?