Lionel Tiger

The Decline of Males

VTR Date: September 22, 1999

Lionel Tiger sees an erosion in the confidence and power of men.


GUEST: Lionel Tiger
VTR: 9/22/1999

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest is my esteemed and highly controversial academic colleague, Lionel Tiger, the Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University.

Now Dr. Tiger writes handsomely and for a broad audience, and in his recent “The Decline of Males” (as in all his many other books), he is not one to mince words.

He uses them effectively and quite directly, telling us right up front, “This book is about an emerging pattern. It is a pattern of growth in the confidence and power of women and erosion in the confidence and power of men … what follows is a chronicle of the decline of men and the ascendancy of women”.

My guest concludes his chronicle, of course, by warning males that “they are enduring illusion and self-deception … in truth ‘they just don’t get it’ … [they] don’t get what they’re about not to have”.

So, I must ask Lionel Tiger just what he means by this … and also what it is that he believes is “hard-wired”, so to speak, in the war between the sexes that he sees as resulting in “The Decline of Males”. What is hard-wired?

TIGER: Little boys and little girls start chromosomally different, hormonally different. As they age, and particularly through adolescence, there are most sharp differences which are defined by the body, levels of those various hormones increase. There are physical differences that are quite astonishing if you consider them. They … there are differences in voice pattern, in movement pattern, and a whole host of physical differences. And it becomes kind of weird to assume that there are no differences also behaviorally. That is, is you have a structure that looks one way and a structure that looks another, presumably their functions are somewhat different. Well, what’s hard-wired, I think is several million … three, four million years of evolution in our species as hunter/gatherers, maybe scavengers in which you had a kind of very rough and changeable, but nonetheless persistent division of labor in which females attended in part, for most of their adult lives, to reproduction because that was necessary, there were high infant mortality rates. In order to reproduce the population, which we’ve done very successfully, by the way, throughout the planet, many women have to be either pregnant or breast feeding all the time. Meanwhile, the males were out catching protein … if you wanted dinner you had to run for it. You didn’t run after dinner as we currently do, with our exercise mania. And there were set up, I think, a whole series of patterns of preference that Darwin understood when he said that people select each other sexually, and that their sexual selection becomes natural selection. So, who males choose as desirable mates in females, and vice versa, then becomes the kind of model or template for the next generation. And over these many, many generations, tens of thousands … I think we’ve developed two categories of person … they’re not completely different, they’re not unrelated in many important ways, but as populations you will find one group tending to do one thing. One group tending to do the other. And now, which is what my book is about, both groups end doing much the same thing because our industrial system has put men and women in the labor force, in the emotional force in much the same way.

HEFFNER: Meaning in which direction?

TIGER: In the female direction. In the sense that the kind of jobs which might involve, for example, physical strength, which was always a premium that males had, which they could use when they were driving a beer truck and they would heft the cases, or if they were chopping trees, or doing the various things … farming, even. Whatever it was. Physical strength was important. No longer is. And there’s no longer a position for physical labor that’s of any consequence, and so you find a lot of ill-educated males who have no work. And we see it all through Europe, we see it all through the United States and Canada. There is just no place for simple physical labor. And then there are a whole series of other, kind of emotional tasks which have to do with predation, with outright and frank aggression that might have to do with exploiting a population as a warrior, or exploiting a population as a tax farmer. Or exploiting a population even as a ruthless capitalist. And all of these things have been tempered, or changed, often for the betterment of everybody. But nonetheless it does, I think, mean that the clarity with which young men and women could look at their lives for their own futures, has been reduced sharply. I think just as an example we see the warrior role which is classically male. In the United States, the Army used to say, “Be a Man, Join the Army”, and now there’s the kind of psycho-babble slogan … “Be All That You Can Be”, whatever the hell that means. Because it’s no longer associated with gender. Well, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe … it will lead to a more peaceful world. But I know from work I’ve done in the military that for a lot of young men, they go into the military because they think this is a kind of test of their capacity as young males. They don’t define it that way, they don’t even understand it that way. But that is in fact, what we, what we see. Even … and I think I cite it in my book … Nelson Mandela in his autobiography describes his initiation when he was at, I think at the age of 15, circumcised. And hideous whole process and painful and anything, but he said after that he felt he was now a man, ready to become the chief of his people which, of course, in a majestic manner he did become.

HEFFNER: You know, I’ve asked this on other programs … I think back to Rex Harrison’s “why can’t a women be more like a man?” What you’re saying, I gather is the question has been answered in that men are becoming more like women.

TIGER: There is a, a broad assumption, and again, in the book, I call it “male original sin”, that whatever men do is somehow suspect …

HEFFNER: Why? Why is … I, I … I’m compelled to … ask you … I made a note of that when I read that … why is that the case?

TIGER: Because, for one thing, the power of feminism morally has been overwhelming. Maybe a good thing. Because women had to enter the labor force and this, by the way, has a lot to do with changes in the reproductive pattern and contraception. I guess we can come to that in a moment. But for the moment, let’s say that after the birth control pill changed the nature of male/female power in reproduction and gave it to the females, males, I think, in some sense felt, as I note in the book, alienated from the means of reproduction, to paraphrase a Marxist phrase. And began to withdraw from the family structures. So that now a third of babies in the industrial world are born to single mothers. One consequence of that is that women have to work. I see that with my students. It used to be in the fifties and sixties that a woman would go to college and get a degree in some skill and work for a few years and then marry and live happily ever after. And her male would see his live, appropriately, as delivering his resources and his time and energy to his family and his wife. And that was the deal. The male didn’t think there was anything wrong with doing that … working. And the female didn’t think there was anything wrong with doing … not working. She had plenty to do at home. But this is all now changed. And students now … women students all have some sense that they have to earn their own living. And many of them will. Even if they marry, which increasingly they don’t … fifty percent of them will endure a divorce, and given the nature of the legal system they had better be able to support themselves. So the job market has become more feminized in the sense that it’s got to accommodate to more women because women need jobs. And that’s the factual issue. There’s also a psychological issue which has become quite endemic and bitter in the university world that I inhabit. Where people will likely say, “oh, it’s just … you’re just being macho”. I cite in my book, I quote Marilyn French, the novelist, who at one point in an interview in “The New York Times” had the hubris to say, “I think men would be a lot happier if they were more like women”. Well, I was thinking, what if she said, “I think Muslims would be a lot happier if they were more like Hindus. Or Jews would be happier if they were more like Gentiles”. She would be put in jail. But she can say that about men and get away with it, and in fact get it printed, no editor cut it out, saying “this is inflammatory sexism”. So there is this kind of notion, and I think that sometimes something which is very obvious requires re-discovery”. And that’s in part what I’ve tried to do in the book.

HEFFNER: But you aren’t just a discoverer, are you? There is a lot of “aye de me” in your book. Unfair of me?

TIGER: I think. I think so. I tried to separate making the diagnosis from making any recommendation. I don’t have a recommendation that’s easily made.

HEFFNER: But isn’t that because you’d be hard pressed to come to a recommendation that could be made to remedy, or change … if I may use the word remedy, let’s use the word “change” this situation.

TIGER: I agree. And, and I think however that from social point of view and the compassionate point of view the first step is to understand what’s going on. And what we’ve had between the sexes over the past twenty or thirty years is a shouting match, with ever more powerful microphones. And it seems to me that we have to step back and say, “now just a moment … what’s going on here?” And what I tried to do in the book was show that the underlying issue was not feminism and macho-ism, whatever you want to call it, really had to do with the core human, in fact all natural relationship, which is reproduction. And once the balance shifted from a cooperative decision about reproduction, that is, when a man and a woman are involved sexually and if they’re not using a condom, which was the principal contraceptive in the fifties and earlier, then they knew there was a plausible chance of pregnancy. About one out five for fertile young people. Once females took control of the pill and, and the IUD and private reproduction something … two things extraordinary happened, which again I document. And they’re counter-intuitive. The first was that for the first time we had an extremely effective female controlled contraception and what did we get a huge increase in single mothers. Now about a third, as I said, in the industrial world.

HEFFNER: You think that’s an irony.

TIGER: Of course it’s an irony. But only if you don’t understand biology. The second … what we call in our trade, “reproductive strategy” … the second thing that happened was that in society after society, even improbably Catholic ones likes like Italy, Spain, France, abortion became legal. So, tell me what happened such that once there was good contraception that we suddenly got these two indicators of failed contraceptive practice. Well, what happened, I think was that because we know from historical data that, say around the turn of the century, and probably up until the fifties between a third and a half of marriages occurred with a pregnancy. Again, not a bad way of doing it … the bits fit and the people are compatible, and you may not like it, and it’s not free choice, but nonetheless there you are and that’s what happened … full stop. Suddenly, Greg is visited by Sue who says, “I have wonderful news, Greg, I’m pregnant”. Now before the fifties he might think, “Oh golly, I guess it’s me”. And after the sixties he says, “Oh, golly, who knows who it is that’s the father”. And so he walks. And what I think we’ve seen with this enormous increase in single motherhood is a lot of men saying, “I don’t know that I want to spend my life supporting a child that I don’t know is mine”. Now DNA is going to change all that … DNA testing. But for the moment, we have a new situation reproductively in biology in which one sex, the female, can control reproduction. Now that’s as it should be because the female is more directly and long-lived involved. Nonetheless it does really raise a question for the males … what’s the point of them?

HEFFNER: What evidence do you have that that is a factor in the “I’m leaving”.

TIGER: No evidence except what’s actually happening in the real world.

HEFFNER: That they’re leaving.

TIGER: They’re leaving

HEFFNER: They’re leaving, right.

TIGER: And, when in the fifties what used to be called the shotgun was invoked, people obeyed it. Now there’s no question that they do. The only shotgun now … and it’s a big one and it’s the government mandating child support payments from people who are defined as legally fathers, with DNA testing. And that’s going to change everything.

HEFFNER: That’s a prophecy. That it will change … you really think it will be used to change things.

TIGER: It’s already the case that in some jurisdictions … for example, we teach at Rutgers. I had a seminar last Spring and in … I was discussing just this issue. And a gal in the class at one point said, “You know, it’s getting really hard to have sex in New Jersey”. Well, I thought this was trying interesting, so I said, “kindly explain”. And she said, “It’s simple. It’s because of the welfare rules. If you get pregnant and you want to apply for child benefits, you have to say who the father is.” And if you nominate a father and he gets tested for DNA, and if he’s the father, he’s got a 21 year bill for child support. This concentrates the minds of the young men considerably. And, I don’t know how plausible as a large pattern this is, but I do think that people are forced to begin thinking about these matters much, much more seriously. In Israel, and I quote here, there was actually a bill in the Kinesit(sp), the Parliament, to make it illegal for woman to have sex with some guy they may have met in a bar once or twice and then turn up nine months later with a Q-tip to take a swab to make a test to compel them to pay child support. It was happening so often. Now, this is bewildering both to men and women. And the legislators have not yet figured it out in any kind of thoughtful manner. There are lots and lots of men, for example I had much mail from men who tell the following kind of story: “I liked your book, I sympathized with it. Let me tell you what happened to me. I met Suzie at a bar and we had sex and we had one phone call subsequently and that was that. And then she called to say she was pregnant, and I said ‘well, I’ll help you out with the abortion. Let’s get an abortion, we clearly do not want to be with each other. Certainly we don’t want to have a child. And she said, ‘Sorry I’m having the child’. And we did the DNA thing, through the law, and now I have to pay … I work for Con Edison, they take a third of my wages (or a quarter, or whatever it is). I can’t have a family of my own”. And these are legion, these cases. Now, how big a population it is, I don’t really know. But I think in a certain sense these are the symbolic indicators of what is happening underneath the, the obvious mating and dating game in the community.

HEFFNER: Well, when that happens … when the DNA is used to a faretheewell, what do you think the consequences will be in terms of the thoughtfulness … or the thought that goes into an encounter, that bar.

TIGER: There was a book published roughly the same time as mine by a man named Michael Segal(sp) who said that he’d been hearing from a lot of men he’d interviewed that they were withholding sex. That they were in a situation where they could have had sexual relations with a female, and then they didn’t. And he interpreted it as they were punishing the women for the power that they had, and so on. I told him I did not think that was the case at all. I think that these were men who were saying, “Just a second here. Maybe we’ll have sex and then maybe I’m going to have this 18 or 21 year bill for child support. I’m not playing. I’m not playing this game”. And that’s thoughtful and in a way a very healthy sign if you assume that when people have children, which is an enormous responsibility they should do it carefully and thoughtfully. At the same time, sex is not normally marked by deep thought. As we’ve seen from the White House to everywhere else. And it remains a critical issue and, for a lot of people, it just does not provide them with a pattern of life that they’re content with.

HEFFNER: To the extent that you want to be identified as an impartial investigator … the fact that you’re considered politically incorrect … what does that do to you?

TIGER: You know it’s sort of interesting, Richard, you ask that because I’ve always thought of myself as a feminist and as a Liberal, progressive yakity, yak …

HEFFNER: That’s the damn part about it, isn’t it.

TIGER: That’s right. And, and I must say that I get furious with people who refuse to look at underlying facts when they’re shaking their placards about a symptom. I’m really not interested in symptoms except in as much as they’re symptoms. I’m really trying to look at the underlying patterns which I think are enormously subtle, but there. And have all kinds of impact. So what it does to me? Oh, you know, I had everything from bomb threats to a threat at the New School to break my knees when I was about to give a lecture there some years ago. And it’s in that sense been quite painful because it seems to me that this community, particularly in the academic community is not really capable of making a distinction between an analysis and a moral recommendation. And I think this is one of the hardest distinctions that any professional person has to make. I try to do it as best I can. Unfortunately, also, my first book “Men In Groups” which developed the whole idea of male bonding, came out at the start of the feminist movement and I got identified with males, as it were, and became a very convenient enemy. The more so because I agreed with most of what feminists were doing, so I was a terrific victim because I said “well, okay, you’re right. Except you got you analysis wrong”, which I think they’ve still got wrong. I just quoted Susan Falootie(sp) out and one of the remarkable things she says that the solution for men is feminism. Well, having created part of the problem, she’s now saying that the problem is the solution. Good luck to her. It’s not going to work that way. And it seems to me that she’s been a lucky person, because she was able to get the attention of the public for taking a position which fit their sentiment. I never fit people’s sentiments. I don’t know why. I try not to be an unpleasant person, I don’t think I am. But I think intellectually and particularly in the area of dealing with biology and human life. You’re prone to be controversial no matter what you do. We saw what happened recently in Kansas where the school board, school system said evolution’s just a notion. Nonsense. The same people that said it’s just a notion, go to their doctor and expect to have treatment based on genetics and evolutionary understanding. And in my field in anthropology there’s de-construction movements and literature where the argument is you can’t know anything. Well, again, nonsense. If you, if you’re a deconstructionist literary scholar and you have a colonoscopy you want somebody that’s actually going to know what they’re talking about factually. So if you get involved with studying evolution you have the same old problems that Darwin had, and which have been going on chronically in the argument between religion and science, but in the case of evolution and human behavior and particularly about sexuality, it’s a really hot argument. And I’m afraid I got into it because, for a simple reason, the law of parsimony. That is, in philosophy, if you want to understand a situation best, go for the most basis mechanism. Try to get that mechanism.

HEFFNER: And we know what that is.

TIGER: We know what that is. And that’s biology. Nobody likes that.

HEFFNER: Tell me as Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology … what do you assume we will evolve into. You talk about “men don’t get it”. What it is that they “don’t get” in terms of a picture of the future.

TIGER: One of the interesting sets of responses to this book I’ve had has been from the mothers of boys …

HEFFNER: I would think so.

TIGER: They were very, very interested in what to tell their kids. Should they train their young boys to put an earring in their ear and go off to Seattle and write impenetrable music. Should they teach them to be cigarette salesmen and try to victimize as many kids as they can. They really don’t know. One of the things that will continue to coerce the future is the fact that fifty percent of babies born are boys. Unless we go in for male infanticide …

HEFFNER: Or manipulation, genetic manipulation.

TIGER: Well, apparently … it was a very small sample, in one group where women and men … parents … could choose the sex of their child, the great majority choose girls. Now, that’s not an answer to your question. The answer to you question is we’re still going to have to deal with the young men. We’re still going to have to deal with their sense that they want to do something. We’re still going to try to put them into a school system which rewards them for doing things that are essentially non-adolescent male … sit still, write little, scratchy little things, pay attention. And what we’re now doing is saying, well they have Attention Deficit Disorder and ninety … over ninety percent of the kids who are victims of Ritilin in the school system are boys. You don’s see an Attention Deficit Disorder during recess. You see it during geography, whatever else is going on. So the school system is going to have to change in some sense. Either by going to single sex schooling which makes a whole series of sensible points depending on what you want to see in the end product. But, we’re going to have to re-think this. And at the moment, we still have the notion … for example, Natalie Angier(sp) a “New York Times” writer was talking about young boys and the headline of the piece ran, I think I cite in my book, “The Debilitating Malady Called Boyhood: Can Anything Be Done?”. Well, that I’m afraid is fifty percent of the adolescent community, you can’t do that really, in a civilized sense. Nor is it practical unless you get rid of all these boys and put them in jail, which we do with some of them. You’re still going to have to deal with them. So, what’s going to happen in the future? I think the only important thing that I may have to say is that if you want to look at the future, you have to understand our past. And our past is as an evolutionary hunter-gatherer with a whole series of things wired into the brain, in the emotions, into the cognitive capacity. We’re not saying that one sex is better than the other, or worse than the other; these are two broad populations that have to interact and do love to interact, because sex is so much fun. And, as a consequence, we’d better under where we come from because otherwise we won’t know where we’re going. We certainly won’t know where we are.

HEFFNER: But inevitably, as a Darwinian, if we talk about the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest, don’t you have to conclude that women … and we have one minute, I’m being signaled, are the fittest.

TIGER: Well, I don’t know if they’re the fittest. They’re the most efficient. So, for example, what’s happened is that women now in the liberal democracies are overwhelmingly creating a gender gap voting for male politicians, they don’t care if its male or female who will do what they want … provide welfare, protect abortion, child support, schooling and so on. And females in that sense are changing the political system. Their income is going up, male income is going down. And there are a whole series of things indicating that females are making their way much more readily than males are. Now, for a mammal, that’s as it should be. Because the female is the core pattern of the species and she is the individual who has to select a mate, get a child and then raise that child. And in the other primates we see something that maybe our future, which is the central group of females raising their young, carrying on, and the males on the outside, scurrying around trying to make some connection.

HEFFNER: That is, indeed, “The Decline of Males”. Lionel Tiger thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.

TIGER: Thank you for having me here.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.