Boys and Men in Crisis. Biology? Culture? Both!

This is the last of a series of five blogs.  In chronological order they are:

Shrinking penises, dropping sperm counts and bigger heads:  What’s going on here?  

Temperament, Testosterone and 21st Century Culture:  More on “What’s going on Here”? 

Sperm, testosterone and penises:  Male reproductive health in crisis.                                       

Temperament, Final sperm comments and the Declining Male Brand.

Boys and Men in Crisis.  Biology? Culture?  Both! 

 

Part I:  What physical and social forces affect testosterone levels in men?

We have  known for awhile that male testosterone  levels have  a lot of variability.  There is a circadian rhythm, with T highest in the morning and dropping slowly through the day.  There is even a seasonal pattern with T lowest in the spring.  Midline obesity (waist and belly) produces its own testosterone disruptor in the release of estrogen from fat cells. (Strange but true, and not true in other areas of fat accumulation). This  type of fat reduces adult levels of testosterone in many men.  T also drops slowly with age and with decreasing muscular fitness.

More relevant here is the fact that adult levels of testosterone are also vulnerable to events in the social environment.  For an obvious example, sexual arousal increases testosterone in multiple circumstances.  Watching an explicit movie is enough to raise the level 35% and this does not peak until 60 to 90 minutes later.  T even increases when men have brief conversations with women.  Wikepedia reports that “Men who have sexual encounters with unfamiliar or multiple partners experience large increases the morning after.”*  They also note that “Men who watch sexually explicit films also report increased optimism and decreased exhaustion.

That last finding about increased optimism is interesting and important. We naturally think of testosterone as simply a sexual hormone, but studies of men with low T have shown a number of other important functions supported by it.  Maintaining good muscle/bone mass and strength is one important role.  However, quoting again from  Wikipedia*  “Literature suggests that attention, memory and spatial ability are key cognitive functions affected by testosterone in humans.  Preliminary evidence suggests that low testosterone levels may be a risk factor for cognitive decline and possibly for dementia of the Alzheimer’s type.”  More recently, good new research indicates that testosterone may be protective against depression in men.**  A large scale study in 2008 found that  older men with low levels of T were 271 % more likely to have “clinically significant signs of depression” than those with normal levels.  In general, women are far more likely to have serious depression than are men and this continues to about age 65, when the difference fades away.  It is thought that this action of testosterone may explain at least part of this difference.

In keeping with this,  there  is a good possibility that the relationship of  testosterone to events that increase or decrease it, is somewhat circular.  As a nice example, T rises in athletes before their events, as if it is adding  readiness for the challenge, by increasing motivation, coordination and concentration.  But–for a couple of hours afterward, T is up for the winners and not for the losers and sometimes dropping for the losers.  Exceptions to this only occur if the event is trivial or obviously based on luck.***  The effect is not limited to physical events.  A chess match, for serious players, will give similar results.

Besides losing a game, what makes T go down?  One older study found that the T of officer candidates dropped severely during the first weeks of Officer Candidate School and only returned to normal just before graduation. (So stress?  Sense of being put down?).   A similar rise was found for T in Med School grads just after graduation. All in all these findings may be suggesting that rises in T with successes are reinforcing, and losing, however minor, is deflating.  If a surge in T brings feelings of optimism, confidence, mental clarity and focus, it should be rewarding.  Presumably, a drop would have the opposite effect.  Repeated positive experiences would strengthen the desire to compete and repeated losses should weaken them. This is a possible explanation for the “hot streaks” that athletes and even whole teams seem to have (and lose).  Logically as men grow into adulthood this should strengthen competitiveness  in some and weaken it in others–allowing experience to guide biology which in turn guides future behavior and experience.

Finally, there are two other circumstances that have been shown to reduce T that (hopefully) do not result from a sense of losing, but rather stepping back from the competitive arena. The first is the area of relationships and marriage. In one small study of the early stages of falling in love, it appears that this reduced  testosterone levels in men.  These returned to normal within 12 to 24 months. Another study of T levels in a large group of Air Force veterans who had been given repeat physicals over a period of ten years, found that T fell as they moved toward marriage and  remained low among those who remained stably married.  The explanation given for this was that “Normal marriages are secure and supportive, more free  from stress than single life….Single men are more likely than married men to face confrontations and challenges, and…are more likely to face situations where they must watch out for themselves, acting defensively and adopting protective postures.”*** It is assumed here that with less constant challenge, there is lower T.

The second and related area is that of fatherhood.  A 2011 study  looked at 624 men who were either already fathers, or became fathers, or remained single and childless during the 4.5 year research period.  They found that fatherhood brought a very large drop in testosterone, that gradually rose during the first year or so.

The one thing that seems most clear here, is that adult male testosterone is highly responsive to social events and interactions.  Second, rising T is rewarding, producing feelings of positive mood, optimism, increased mental clarity and focus.

Part II: And this relates to socio-cultural attitudes about men–how?

Well,  the male brand is in decline, at least in the Western world, and has been for decades.  Let me return for a moment to Steve Pinker’s descriptions.*** I mentioned in my last blog that he saw violence as “a problem of young, unmarried, lawless men competing for dominance…then violence really is a problem of their being  too much testosterone in the world.”  Similarly, and related to inter-male aggression, he comments that “Dominance is an adaptation to anarchy, and it serves no useful purpose in a society that has undergone a civilizing process…”

He also quotes a survivor of the nuclear attack on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki as saying “The only people in the world who should be allowed to govern countries with nuclear weapons are mothers, those who are still breast-feeding their babies.”

Finally he ends a section on Feminization with the conclusion that “Several varieties of feminization, then–direct political empowerment, the deflation of manly honor, the promotion of marriage on women’s terms, the right of girls to be born, and women’s control over their own reproduction–have been forces in the decline of violence.”

He praises “the deflation of manly honor” because manly honor is seen only as taking pride in not being put down by someone else (presumably male). If that were my definition, I might agree that we should simply be moving away from it.  Honor killings within families, gang killings for being “dissed”, bar fights over being insulted (essentially the same concept), rages and riots after sports games–all reek of testosterone-fueled stupidity.  And yet, my Oxford dictionary gives me as the first definition of honor “honesty, fairness, or integrity in beliefs and actions: a man of honor.”  This is in no way unique to men;  the world is full of women of honor also, but denigrating the very concept of honor in men is unfortunate, as this (Oxford definition) is exactly where male forcefulness should go.

A few years back, Pinker himself acted in a way that fit my finest definition of  honor.   In 2005, Larry Summers, the then  chancellor of Harvard, dug himself into a deep hole in a talk on “Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce.” He was speaking about why women are less represented in tenured science positions, and dared to give as one possible reason, that more men than women were at the very top of science and math abilities.  He simply presented that as one of several possibilities, and not necessarily the one he favored, but the damage was done.  A woman faculty member from MIT left near the end of this talk and said later that if she had stayed “I would’ve either blacked out or thrown up.”  The Chancellor apologized for his comments on several occasions right after that, but in the end he had done himself in.  The Harvard Faculty voted 218 to 185 to censure him, and he eventually resigned from his position.

To the best of my recollection, the only faculty member who stood and spoke in Summers’ defense was Steven Pinker, who responded to a question as to whether Summers’s words “were within the legitimate pale of academic discourse” by saying “…should not everything be within the pale of legitimate academic discourse….? That’s the difference between an university and a madrassa.  There is certainly enough evidence for the hypothesis to be taken seriously.”  That might seem like a mild comment, but in this circumstance it was not.  For a male faculty member to say this in isolation, against the will of fellow faculty members, many of them female, and against all public academic opinion of the day, was an act of great courage.  I would call it– manly honor.

Part II:  And how does this relate to male vulnerability to present socio-cultural attitudes?

For me, this Summers/Pinker story cuts to the heart of what I am trying to say about the male response to  a “challenge to dominance.”  Without doubt, boys are different from girls, and men from women, for reasons that are inherent in the Y chromosome.  Boys differ from girls in the degree to which they (many, not all) relish competition and challenge, and are more ready to fight if need be.  And some number of men, lacking high intelligence, having poor impulse control, and probably poor nurture as well, never grow past this. But, I truly believe that this same unruly impulse is the seedbed for mature male strength both in war and the ending of war, and in all the more peaceful challenges that many men rise up to meet with delight. It needs to be honed, matured, and respected,  but not marginalized.  And yet, an otherwise brilliant linguist/psychologist does not recognize this distinction  in his own behavior.

The message that has been sent with increasing emphasis for the last 40 years or more, is that the unique qualities that we associate with men are inherently productive of violence and war throughout the world, and are in truth, anachronisms. This makes the male rather like the appendix–vestigial at best, and likely to burst and kill you at worst.

I’m suggesting that testosterone, for all the edge it may give men in physical strength, a natural drive for dominance, a little cognitive spark when they need it, and perhaps a biological hedge against depression–may also leave them surprisingly vulnerable to a social world that does not value the qualities that are most intrinsically male.  Recall that rises in T are most likely for the winners of any effort, but–the contest has to matter to the person, and the results have to be seen as something more than random luck.  And recall that rises in T are both useful to the man and reinforcing for his actions.  T rises in anticipation of a challenge and continues to rise whenever a meaningful challenge has been won.

Inside the boy, and inside the man, is the secret desire to be a champion, and to be a hero–no matter how simple or silly the form it may take. What society has done is to turn this inborn impulse into a dismissive joke, while working 24/7  to train the behavior out completely.

In an earlier blog, I quoted at some length from Hanna Rosin’s book The End of Men and the Rise of Women.****  She reported there that  boys are falling behind girls in nearly every academic area, from grades to graduation to classroom deportment.  This culminates at the university level with three women earning a BA for every two men.  In the work world,  she notes that for the first time in history, the balance of the workforce tipped toward women (in the US), who now hold a majority of the nation’s jobs.  She adds that “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,women now hold 51.4 percent of managerial and professional jobs.”  By and large there is every reason to believe these are accurate statistics.  They are easily verifiable.

Rosin’s answer, is that the world is essentially changing, women are adapting to this, and men are not.  But at least in the training grounds–in school and university and early employment, the new rules are women’s rules.  From kindergarten on we are promoting a remarkably feminine world.  Never interrupt.  Sit quietly until it is your turn to speak.  Cooperation is noble, but competition is childish. Peaceful negotiation (no matter what the issue) is always right, confrontation is always wrong. Respect all differences.  Never criticize or speak ill of anyone–even if well deserved. Consensus decisions, not hard fought arguments.

In support of the possible effect of this, I suggest  that what is happening with boys in the education system looks more like a loss of motivation than a loss of ability.  The best measure of high school math and reading skills in the United States seems to be the National Assessment  of Educational Progress or NAEP.*****  Below I include scores for reading and writing from 1992 to 2009 for grade 12 students and below those,  SAT verbal and math scores for similar years.

 

NAEP READING SCORES—GRADE 12
1992 2005 2009
Male scores 287 279 282
Female scores 298 292 294
NAEP MATH SCORES—GRADE 12
1992 2005 2009
Male scores 306 151 155
Female scores 303 148 152
SAT VERBAL SCORES
1992 2005 2009
Male scores 504 496
Female scores 505 513

 

SAT MATH SCORES
1992 2005 2012
Male scores 521 538 532
Female scores 484 504 499

These are not perfect comparisons for a variety of reasons.  Twelfth grade NAEP grade scores for years beyond 2009 do not appear to be available yet, NAEP reading scores changed the scoring format around 2006, and SAT scores for 2012 are not directly comparable, as the SAT split a single reading score into separate reading and writing and added a separate section on Reasoning.  My own reading of these limited data points is that12th grade females are clearly ahead in Reading, but the M/F gap is pretty stable, and slightly behind (about 3 points) in Math, but again a stable gap

The NAEP differs from the SAT in being  a somewhat greater measure of ability as opposed to achievement, and also differs in that more women than men now take the SAT.  The limited data that are listed here, however, seem to suggest that although the M/F gap has narrowed a little in 20 years, it is still a very strong gap in favor of males.

I would interpret all of this as indicating that the primary problem that males have in work and education, has certainly more to do with a change in motivation than a change in ability.  Does that motivational change  result from changes in male biology, male testosterone, male reproductive vigor, or from the great change in social attitudes in the last 40 to 50 years?

Conclusion–I would bet on both

I am a biology fan at heart.  I began this series of blogs fairly light-heartedly because of three fascinating 2012 reports I had read (see Shrinking penises, dropping sperm count and bigger heads:  What’s going on here?), but as I read more and more of the literature I became convinced that something very serious is going on here.  The location of these problems mainly in highly developed countries where industrial endocrine disruptors are far more common, and the remarkable parallel to problems in human males and problems in many different animal forms seems extremely convincing.  It may also be of some interest that the same Western countries where these male problems have been found, also have fertility rates that are well below replacement in many cases.  These are usually presumed to result from the number of women now in the workplace and the much greater availability of contraception.  All true–but biology may have a role here too.

Lastly, the bigger heads might even be telling us something about biological change.  Not only was larger overall size reported but the report indicated that “white US skulls have become larger, taller and narrower as seen from the front, and faces have become significantly narrower and higher.”  This means that the width to height ratio has increased in the direction of less width.  The most recent report on width to height ratio****** clearly assumes that greater width indicates greater early testosterone.  This is one more suggestion that testosterone might be decreasing over time!  So, yes–I do believe that something bad is this way coming–and there had better be some really effective yelling and screaming.

But–I am a psychologist by training.  Looking from that perspective at the fascinating ways that testosterone varies with events in the world, and the ways that it then biologically guides male behavior, I can easily see a pathway for wide social disparagement to affect both testosterone levels and male behavior.  It is long past time to call off the war on men.  Male dominance of women is not the answer, and is, no doubt the original agent provocateur, but women’s soft dominance of men, and their social milieu,  is not an answer either.  It is a passionate public, and political belief that on average, men and women, boys and girls are virtually identical beings.  It is time we let go of that and respected one another for the gender-different people we that we are.

Those of us who respect temperament recognize that you cannot make an introvert out of an extravert, an intuitive person out of a sensing person, a feeler out of a thinker.    David Kiersey, in Please Understand Me II, said of our differing temperaments that “We differ in our thoughts, in our feelings, in our wants and beliefs, and in what we say and do (and) we instinctively account for differences in others not as an expression of natural diversity, but in terms of flaw and affliction….And our job, at least with those we care about, is to correct these flaws….Like Pygmalion, we labor to remake our companions in our own image.  (But) remove the fangs of a lion and behold a toothless lion, not a domestic cat.”

We need to apply the same wisdom and generosity to gene-deep gender differences.  At least partly, males of all ages may be slip-sliding away from accomplishment and participation in the world as the outcome of huge social efforts to make them feel that their natural responses are unacceptable and unrewarding.

The author of End of Men, (Rosin)  and the author of The Better Angels of our Nature, (Pinker) are telling us (Rosen) that boys and men are falling back  in the modern world of accomplishment, and (Pinker) that–perhaps as a result–the Western world, at least, is becoming a safer, more feminine and more peaceful place.

I would like to suggest that it is not that simple–and  dangerous to think so.

Selected References

*Wikipedia:  Testosterone

**Anderson, P. (2008).  Low Testosterone Levels Linked with Higher Risk for Depression.  (This is a summary report that can be found at http//www.medscape.org//viewarticle/571198_print)

***Pinker, S. (2008).  The Better Angels of Our Nature:  Why Violence Has Declined.  USA:  Viking.

****Rosin, Hanna (2012).  The End of Men and the Rise of Women.  New York:  Riverhead Books.

*****The Nation’s Report Card:  Grade 12 Reading and Mathematics (online)

******Keirsey, David (1998). Please Understand Me II. Del Mar CA:  Prometheus Nemesis

Recommended reading on boys and Education

Sax, Leonard (2007)  Boys Adrift.  New York:  Basic Books

Whitmire, Richard (2010) Why Boys Fail.  New York:  AMACOM

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One Response to Boys and Men in Crisis. Biology? Culture? Both!

  1. Lars says:

    Interesting thoughts on honor. I’ve never thought of it in this way, but honor can also be a negative thing, if one emphasizes to much on it and is therefore easily (over)offended if someone questions it.

    I think the male striving for dominance is much lika a knife: it can be used to do harmful things and used to do useful things. Rather than to either blunt or sharpen that knife, we should work on how we can put it to productive use. Don’t try to change people/man/women but direct their energy and abilities in a positive way.

    Today i stumbled upon a related article, suggesting that Sex/gender is indeed more of a continuum than a simple case of two boxes. I fully agree with that and it further confirms what you wrote, that men are moving more towards feminity:
    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-makes-us-human/201303/70-male-100-human

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