Andrew Ladd reviews Peter McAllister’s new book, Manthropology: The Science of Why the Modern Male Is Not the Man He Used to Be.
If you’ve glanced at the news since September, you’ve probably noticed the National Football League is getting a pretty bad rap—and not just because of Brett Favre’s extracurricular activities. The press, for no apparent reason, seems to have decided that football’s inherent violence is something worth talking about.
To be sure, NFL games can be pretty rough, but critics should remember that the situation could be a lot worse. Even compared to the non-helmet-wearing, minimally padded NFL of yore, players today are a lot better off. Compared to Roman gladiators, Greek Olympians, or even 16th-century Meso-American “basketballers”—whose 20-pound solid rubber balls were thrown with such force that players were often killed instantly from a single blow to the head or stomach—today’s football players live a life of protected luxury.
Of course, you might reasonably point out that it’s not fair to compare modern football to ancient blood sports, for many reasons: we know a lot more about the long-term effects of such physical trauma now; we’ve developed several less dangerous sports and pastimes that are equally entertaining; and, in general, we’re just a lot more civilized than the thugs of millennia past—so we should hold ourselves to higher standards.
Try telling that to Peter McAllister, though, author of Manthropology: The Science of Why the Modern Male Is Not the Man He Used to Be (St. Martin’s Press, $23.99). His book—which argues that “modern man” is inferior to his ancestors in almost every way—is an exercise in evaluating today’s men according to a variety of unconventional standards. That mostly means much lower, much more barbaric standards than we’re used to.
I’ve been struggling for many weeks now to understand McAllister’s motivation in undertaking such an exercise; I think popular anthropology books can raise tremendously useful questions about the way we live today, so believe me, I wanted to like it. But it brings me no joy to tell you that I simply can’t: no matter how I try to take the book—whether as serious science, mindless entertainment, or a tongue-in-cheek reconsideration of masculine ideals—Manthropology leaves me mostly baffled, offended, or both.
Let’s start with serious science. This is probably the easiest interpretation of the book to dismiss, because though McAllister seems like a serious enough scientist, I doubt even he would hold up some of his work here as particularly rigorous. That’s because he makes arbitrary comparisons and chops and changes his units of analysis whenever it’s convenient, neither of which are hallmarks of careful scientific study.
In one chapter, for example, he compares human males to Neanderthal ones, even though that means comparing two separate species; a few pages later he’s turned around and started comparing “modern” human males to “ancient” ones of the same species (Greeks, Romans, and the like); later still he compares “modern” human males to the ones who lived in the late 19th century; and finally he looks at “modern” human males (read: white, English-speaking ones) next to “tribal” human males of any particular time or place—which is bad anthropology at best, and kind of racist at worst.
So it’s never clear at any point in the book who “we” are worse than. If anything, all his endless comparisons prove is that 21st-century Anglo-Saxon males are different from males who live in any other culture or during any other historical period. That hardly seems very surprising, and it’s certainly not an original contribution to contemporary anthropology. (In fact, it’s kind of the starting point for contemporary anthropology.)
Many of McAllister’s comparisons in the book are in themselves pretty eye-opening. An old Australian Aboriginal initiation ritual where “the underside of [a] young man’s penis is slit deeply from tip to scrotum” with a razor blade is a particular stunner, especially for all those concerned with the relative brutality of Western circumcision. That’s why it sometimes seems like his main goal here must be to “entertain,” in the same, gruesome sort of way that shark attack videos, say, are entertainment.
But even as lighthearted fun, Manthropology doesn’t really work, because McAllister’s central conceit gets really stale, really fast. True, he gets in a couple of good zingers, but over an entire book, or even over a chapter or two, the idea begins to feel dangerously overstretched. (Look, another way in which modern men are “worse” than their forebears!) Besides, there’s still enough science between all the zingers—even if it’s dubious, unconvincing science—that it seems like entertainment can’t have been his primary motivation.
So if McAllister’s goal isn’t to advance scientific inquiry, and it isn’t to provide cheap yuks, the last guess I’m left with is that he’s trying to say something about what it means to be a “modern” man.
This is an equally puzzling proposition, because by most objective standards McAllister’s “modern” men, us—the ones who are supposedly inferior in every way—seem a lot better off than any of the noble forefathers he says we’re now forsaking. We inflict less pain on each other, do fewer damaging things to our bodies, and generally live easier, happier lives than our ancestors. We reflect on what it means to be good men. We certainly don’t slit our children’s penises open with razor blades, or kill each other with 20-pound basketballs, or wage such devastating wars—to pick another of McAllister’s examples where we don’t measure up—that 95 percent of our troops end up dead. And we’re supposed to be upset about this.
I know, I know: these are extreme examples, and the logical explanation is that McAllister is only using them in an ironic way to highlight how silly it can be to pride ourselves on “achievements” like, natch, NFL stars who produce records at the cost of injury, brain damage, and death. That’s what I thought too.
But if it is irony, it is an irony so total, so monolithic, so earnestly lacking in clear markers, that I question whether it really works as irony. Besides, in his epilogue—where you might expect him to come clean about his true intentions—McAllister instead comes out and explicitly says that we are all “traitors”: “traitors to the countless generations of male humans and proto-humans who lived and died—mostly died—to hone the genetic heritage we so signally fail to live up to.”
This is a bizarre complaint coming from an anthropologist, because it attributes more intent to evolution than even McAllister admits it has: the idea that evolution somehow created an “ideal” genetic code for human beings, a genetic code that we are now not using “correctly,” simply doesn’t make sense. We live in a very different environment than the one in which our ancestors’ genes were selected, and the “correct” thing to do, if anything, is let those genes continue to adapt—not to live more like cavemen (or even bushmen) because that’s what natural selection “designed” us for.
To be fair, McAllister does get a little more progressive in places. He says, for instance, that men today are fooling themselves if they really think they’re awesome fathers, or superlative husbands—hey, good men—because there are countless examples of men in other cultures doing us one (or several) better.
For a few paragraphs in the last pages, he even gives a few recommendations as to how we can improve our own record on those things: spending more time with kids (for those who have them), and being more concerned with the happiness of our families and romantic partners, and generally being less willing to accept the status quo when it seems like things could change for the better.
Surrounded, though, by so much bizarre, hand-wringing atavism worship, that progressive message gets a little lost. Instead, the overriding message of the book—indeed, the message right there in its title—is that we men were better off when we were all bloodthirsty savages. And if that’s the case, I hope everyone who has started questioning the NFL recently will join me when I say: I’m happy being as inferior as I can be.