Lionel Tiger, The Decline of Males (New York: Golden Books, 1999)
Reviewed by Ryan C. MacPherson
Why would a confessional Lutheran (who recognizes that God created humanity male and female, instituted marriage, and designed the one-flesh union for procreation) want to read a book written by an evolutionist who claims that Darwin’s theory of sexual selection is the key to interpreting the breakdown of the American family? If the evolutionist is Dr. Lionel Tiger, a Rutgers University anthropologist, and the book is The Decline of Males, then the answer is simple: his insightful analysis offers lessons that transcend the gap between Darwinian assumptions, which fundamentally contradict Scripture, and the confessional Lutheran worldview, which proclaims that God “impressed upon [human] nature” a “divine ordinance” for marital procreation (Apol. XIII (XI), 7, 12).
[The author's] insightful analysis offers lessons that transcend the gap between Darwinian assumptions, which fundamentally contradict Scripture, and the confessional Lutheran worldview, which proclaims that God ‘impressed upon [human] nature’ a ‘divine ordinance’ for marital procreation
Tiger differs from many scholars. He identifies the root of America’s culture war over “family values,” with its recurring “battle of the sexes,” not in politics, not in religion, not in any particular ideology, but rather in biology. He argues that male and female bodies, and the social behaviors that typically go with them, have evolved over millions of years to perfect a mammalian reproductive cycle in which offspring are preserved by males who care for pregnant and lactating females. The introduction of modern contraception in the 1960s, however, radically altered the human social environment. Biology—slow to evolve—is struggling to catch up. The result is social chaos, involving an escalation of single motherhood and absent fatherhood. A confessional Lutheran would want to correct Tiger’s evolutionary presuppositions with the doctrine that God the Creator designed human nature in such a way that “a husband should labor to support his wife and children … that a wife should bear children and care for them.” (AC XXVI, 10) The interesting thing is that many of Tiger’s conclusions would still stand. Following is the story he tells, drawn from anthropology, sociology, and psychology.
Prior to the 1960s, when the hormonal birth control pill became available, men and women had equal awareness of whether a sexual encounter was likely to result in pregnancy. Men, therefore, were more willing to accept responsibility for their pre-marital misbehavior, as evidenced by the high percentage of pregnant brides a century ago (30% to 50%). Today, by contrast, fewer women are pregnant on their wedding day, but many more remain unmarried as single mothers. “It is impossible,” writes Tiger, “to overestimate the impact of the contraceptive pill on human arrangements.” By shifting responsibility away from men and women (condoms and diaphragms) and toward women alone (pills and IUDs), modern contraceptive technology has empowered women to control their own destinies while also leaving women more vulnerable and isolated by deflating “a man’s sense of power … sense of function … sense of responsibility.” (35) Tiger suggests that this explains why the push for legalized abortion increased after the pill became available: when the pill failed, and an unmarried woman found herself pregnant, she could count no longer on a “shotgun wedding” as a safety net, and so she felt desperate for another way out.
‘If liberation means the absence of unavoidable irrefutable obligations,’ explains Tiger, ‘women’s liberation has backfired. It is men who have been liberated.’
By severing sexual intimacy from procreative potential, and procreative potential from male responsibility, the same pill that made women less dependent upon men also made them more dependent upon themselves, and ultimately upon the state. “If liberation means the absence of unavoidable irrefutable obligations,” explains Tiger, “women’s liberation has backfired. It is men who have been liberated.” (184) As women became less trusting of men and more reliant on themselves, higher education and gainful employment shifted, among women, from being luxuries to necessities. It became a greater stigma for a woman to be unemployed than unmarried. “Housewife,” formerly a badge of honor, was now a label of embarrassment. Women discovered, in a new culture of absent fatherhood and devalued motherhood, that “paid work enjoys high moral and social status even if it involves a woman’s taking care of someone else’s child ... and even if she has to pay yet another person to take care for hers.” (68) Men, meanwhile, shirked their responsibilities to the women they impregnated and the children born to them, leaving a void that social welfare sought to fill. Thus, monogamy gave way to “bureaugamy,” the marriage of a single woman and her child to the state’s welfare bureaucracy (21).
All this may sound too much like a “just so” story—clever, but without substantial evidence to support it. Here is where Tiger’s synthesis of the social sciences and natural sciences becomes more intriguing.
First, a lesson from primatology. Consider Austin, a dominant male monkey on a Caribbean island with nine female monkeys. As is typical for his species, he chooses to mate repeatedly with his favorite females—in this case, three of the nine. When researchers inject two of those three with Depo-Provera, a contraceptive, Austin loses interest and seeks two replacements from among the other monkeys. When the Depo-Provera wears off after three months, he returns to them. When researchers put all nine females on contraception, Austin begins “to rape, masturbate, and behave in a turbulent and confused manner.” (39) Depo-Provera chemically mimics pregnancy; since a female cannot become pregnant while currently pregnant, a female who is “chemically pregnant” on Depo-Provera has significant “protection” from actually becoming pregnant. As Austin’s harem demonstrates, this protection comes not only from the drug’s physiological effects, but also from it social effects. Chemically pregnant females do not exude the same pheromones as fertile females, and hence not only their own libido but also the interest that males exhibit toward them declines.
Similarly, women on the pill fall out of synch with off-pill women, whose pheromones lead the menstrual cycles of, say, women in a college dormitory to synchronize with the alpha female. In other words, “the pill affects how women relate to other women in a visceral way.” (42) Hormonal contraception also impacts women’s perceptions of men: women off the pill can distinguish responsible, gainfully employed, physically fit men from social “losers” by the smell of their clothes; women on the pill fail this same pheromonal evaluation. Such data confirm that Lutheran pastors had good reason to be concerned that, once the pill became commonplace, “Relationships between men and women would never again be the same.” (Lutheran Synod Quarterly, 1981*)
As Tiger progresses from the natural sciences to the social sciences, he does not champion “traditional family values” in the manner typical of reactionary conservatism. Rather, he argues compellingly for the success of single motherhood as a strategic adaptation to a radically impoverished human social environment. Women, whether single, married, or divorced, whether with or without children, are faring surprisingly well (though married women fare best). Women’s real wages increased in the closing decades of the twentieth century, while they declined for men. Women make up the majority of college students (55% in America; 60% in Canada) and are earning an increasing share of post-graduate degrees. Women are starting successful small businesses—often in or close to home, as they creatively integrate work with family life, a task that men have not mastered so well.
Rather than pointing a finger of blame at single women for being irresponsible, or for milking the welfare system, Tiger applauds their success at beating the odds. He also analyzes social transformations that have reshaped the odds in their favor. Specifically, a double-standard has emerged, under the guises of affirmative action and political correctness, in which all-female colleges retain praise but an all-male academy or golf club receives a court order to integrate. Rambunctious boys, whom an evolutionary anthropologist would identify as well-adapted for catching prey on the savannah, are now expected to cooperate quietly in feminized group learning classrooms, or else be diagnosed with ADHD and drugged with Ritalin. The same “troublesome” boys who fare poorly in school excel on the athletic field and demonstrate mental acuity by memorizing the stats of their favorite sports teams. Their biology is that of a male hunter-gatherer, but their social environment increasingly rewards feminine behavioral patterns they cannot readily produce.
Tiger thus objects both to the male chauvinism against which mid- to late-twentieth-century feminists reacted and also to the androgynous ideal that has largely replaced it. Emphasizing that men and women are biologically different, and by nature interdependent, Tiger worries about the “new world” in which men and women are expected to be the same, as interchangeable individuals rather than interdependent pairs. “Both men and women must play separately by the same rules rather than together by different ones.” (137)
It is almost easier to sever the most fundamental of human connections [marriage] than to install a Coke sign in a landmark part of town.
But why separately? “It is almost easier to sever the most fundamental of human connections [marriage] than to install a Coke sign in a landmark part of town.” (115) No-fault divorce transforms even married mothers into single mothers, pseudo-empowering women to go it alone and men to leave them alone. Only 18% of single mothers receive child support from the father. Nearly 50% of Manhattan residents and 70% of central Oslo residents live alone. “The family effectively becomes almost a subset of society rather than the central system of society itself.” (107) Even families that remain intact outsource what historically have been the family’s most efficient achievements: childcare, cooking, cleaning, and laundry. Half of American meals are eaten outside of home, and many of those eaten at home are “carry out” from elsewhere. The same two-income social structure that enables such tasks to be hired out also prevents spouses from having time to do them for themselves. Of course, this also means that husband and wife, parent and child are not doing such tasks for or with one another.
Men, meanwhile, recognize their lost ability to provide gainfully for a woman and their children. Some give up trying. Others labor in dissatisfying jobs, which they acquire only after tough competition against other men and women in an environment where affirmative action preferences female applicants. “The most challenging test to industrial communities,” projects Tiger, “will be to provide acceptable and gratifying occupations for young males and the adults they become.” (190) The decline of males has been especially sharp among African Americans, among whom 40% to 50% of young men are unemployed, and 7% of men spend part of their lives in jail. But the challenge is much broader. “How many men of any race or ethnic group can confidently assume they will, like their fathers, be able to support a spouse and several children in a seemly manner on their own check?” (170)
At the root of this all is a biological imperative: “Who will raise the children?” In Tiger’s evolution-assumed analysis, “it is best to begin with the mammalian fact that small children should be raised by their mothers. This is Mother Nature’s plan.” (260) Still, he does not suggest that people should be trapped by their genetic coding; rather, he urges that choices should be made in conformity with biological reality: if many mothers decide to remain at home with their children … this should be treated as an adult choice by empowered people, not a distasteful primordial legacy.” (263) He also wants women to feel free to remain unmarried and childless, pursuing independent lifestyles if they prefer. However, he argues that such independence should be truly independent, not bolstered by affirmative action—particularly now that 55% of college students are women anyway.
But whether women work, or stay at home to raise their children, or creatively develop a combination of both, is not Tiger’s principal concern. He simply suggests that children are best raised by their parents, and young children by their mothers, and thus he raises a red flag about a society that so causally has adopted the post-family normalcy of a single woman laboring (often by caring for other people’s children) in order to finance childcare for her own children. “No zookeeper would have Monkey Mother A take care of Monkey Mother B’s baby and vice versa,” but current welfare policy encourages precisely this arrangement for humans (264). Why not instead provide welfare payments for stay-at-home single mothers?
Better still, why not identify ways to foster greater responsibility among males, so that husbands and fathers can acquire gainful employment and fulfill responsibilities to women and children? Of course, responsibility implies interdependence, and interdependence is quite at odds with the sort of independence the pill promised women and men half a century ago. Could it be that such independence has prompted men to retreat from family responsibilities? Tiger thinks so, and warns that human society is regressing to a matrilineal chimpanzee lifestyle in which females mate with multiple males, none of whom maintain close ties to mother or child.
For a full remedy to the epidemic of fatherlessness in America, one must look far beyond the social science of Lionel Tiger to the Bible’s testimony of the forgiving God who comes to earth to restore His fallen creatures.
What he mistakes for evolutionary regression, Scripture identifies as original sin—the rotting away of our divinely fashioned human nature. For a full remedy to the epidemic of fatherlessness in America, one must look far beyond the social science of Lionel Tiger to the Bible’s testimony of the forgiving God who comes to earth to restore His fallen creatures. One must look to the gospel of Jesus Christ, concerning whom the prophet Malachi wrote, “He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6). Come quickly, Lord Jesus!
Dr. Ryan C. MacPherson is the founding president of The Hausvater Project. He lives with his wife Marie and their children in Mankato, MN, where he teaches American history, history of science, and bioethics at Bethany Lutheran College.
*Carl E. Braaten, “Sex, Marriage, and the Clergy,” Dialog n.v. (n.d.): n.p., as quoted and discussed in Norman A. Madson, “How Should a Pastor Deal with the New Morality?” Lutheran Synod Quarterly 21, no. 3 (1981): 32-47, at 35.
Suggested citation: MacPherson, Ryan C. “Darwinism, Contraception, and the Decline of Manhood.” Rev. of The Decline of Males, by Lionel Tiger. The Hausvater Project, Sept. 2008. www.hausvater.org.