- Evolutionary success is really about the children.
Our modern view of success can be summarized as “he who dies with the most toys wins.” We strive for more and more money so we can buy more and more stuff. There is economic value in ensuring that want more things. If we can convince people that they will be happier if only they owned the latest…fill in the blank, then our consumption-based economic system will thrive.
However, real success is all about the children. Are we raising good kids who value life, care about themselves and others, can express their full range of emotions, and can think clearly and analytically to solve life’s many problems?
We often think of evolution as being about “the survival of the fittest,” but it’s really about the survival of the sexiest. From an evolutionary perspective, success is about doing what it takes to find a mate who trusts us enough to have sex and make babies and to raise those babies to adulthood so they can find a mate to have sex, make babies, and continue the cycle.
Says anthropologist Melvin Konner in his book Women After All: Sex, Evolution and the End of Male Supremacy, “Evolution is a struggle for reproduction, not existence, and the sole goal of survival is to get to reproduce (or help close relatives do the same). Life is the handmaid, procreation is the queen.”
This process has been going on for a billion years.
Think of it, none of your direct ancestors died childless. Whatever they did or didn’t do, they were successful at this one important job. Your parents had at least one child. So did their parents, and so did their parents, all the way back in time a billion years to the first male and female. And what’s the essential reason having two sexes has been so successful? It creates a division of labor. Each sex does certain things that the other sex isn’t as good at doing.
We know that female mammals, of which all humans are members, are able to feed the young with nourishing milk from their bodies. They do many other important things as well, but that is a basic function. What do men do? I’ll suggest that the male’s primary job is to protect the females and their children from other males who might harm them.
For humans, it means that women must take care of themselves and the children and men must be prepared to fight other men. For those of us who live in relative peace, we forget that through most of human history men were required to fight other men.
- Children are best served when parents embrace different roles.
Cross-cultural studies demonstrate that children, throughout evolutionary time, must be assured of two kinds of nurturance:
- The provision of physical security.
- The provision of emotional security.
According to social scientist, David Gutmann, “The fact of gender captures and memorializes the processes of evolutionary selection whereby the necessary capacities were assorted by sex, so as to assure the provision, to children, of physical and emotional security.”[ii]
Gutmann is not saying that all women must stay at home and all men must go out and “bring home the bacon.” What he is saying is that someone must take primary responsibility for meeting children’s needs for physical and emotional security.
Social scientist Dr. Joyce F. Benenson, author of Warriors and Worriers: The Survival of the Sexes, says, “Every one of the ancestors of people alive today managed to avoid an early death and to pass their genes to their children. Behavior that helps to prevent early death, therefore, must be programmed into our genetic material.”
Benenson has conducted research on the different roles of men and women over the last thirty years. She has concluded the following:
“For thousands of years, human females and males have faced different sorts of major problems and found different types of solutions. Women have taken primary responsibility for long-term survival of vulnerable children. In contrast, men have taken primary responsibility for fighting wars. Males are programmed to develop traits that are associated with becoming a warrior, and that human females are programmed to develop characteristics that are related to become a worrier.”[iii]
Women needed to worry about their own health and the health and well-being of the children. Men needed to protect women and children by “bringing home the bacon” and being alert to outside threats. Times have changed and our roles are more flexible. Yet, the children still need the basic support they have gotten from their parents.
- Children need the active involvement of mothers and fathers during their formative years.
Not all children grow up in homes with a father and a mother. Some grow up in homes with two fathers or two mothers or with grandparents, or other parental figures. All children were born of a mother and a father and most children would like the active involvement of both parents throughout their lives.
As a marriage and family counselor helping men and women for fifty years now, I have to say that parents are working their butts off to care for their kids. But as a society, we are failing. More kids are anxious and depressed. More are dropping out of school. More are joining gangs. More are having children before they are able to fully care for them. More married couples are getting divorced while the children are still young. More parents are forced to work and children are left in the care of well-meaning strangers who do their best but can’t replace the loving support of parents and extended families.
Like me, too many boys and girls grow up in a family where a father is absent physically or emotionally. Father absence is becoming so common, we do the best we can and hope things will turn out O.K. Children are resilient and may seem to be fine, but in my own life and in most of the clients I see, I believe that the father wound is deep and long-lasting.
Likewise, too many of us grow up being raised by a single mom. She does what she can, tries to make the best of a bad thing, and may even come to believe that a single loving parent is all a child needs to grow up to be strong and healthy. I can understand the desire to believe that it’s true, but my experience working with 25,000 men and women over the last 50 years is that it isn’t. Children do much better when they are raised by a mother and a father.
Over the years I’ve seen a dangerous and destructive dynamic in families. When a man and woman fall in love and get married, they no longer feel confident that they will stay together “until death do we part,” or even “until the kids grow up.” Usually, subconsciously at first, the woman begins preparing to have to take over when the man leaves. The man begins pulling away, feeling the mom and kids are a unit and he feels left out. Once this dynamic gets started, things may seem OK on the surface, but the family is in trouble. These beliefs act like emotional acid that gradually eats away at the foundation of the relationship.
Raising children is the most important job humans have, but it has become increasingly difficult in today’s world. I tell couples that the minimum requirement to raise healthy children are two adults for each child. So, if you’re a married couple with two kids, you are already feeling stressed.
Unlike other mammals, human children are born immature. It’s the only way our big-brained babies could get through the birth canal. They need a lot of care for a lot of years from both parents. Having both parents working outside the home may be good for the economy, but it isn’t good for the kids. Children need at least one and preferably two full-time adults who are there for the kids during the first five years of their lives. It doesn’t always have to be the mother, though she has been the primary caregiver through most of human history. Dads can be good primary parents, but they have to learn to do it well.
We need to change the cultural dynamic that makes it difficult for two parents to split the parental duties so that there is at least one primary caregiver at home during a child’s formative years. Men and women have to learn that they can’t always have it all at the same time—raise healthy children and work full-time jobs outside the home. We can have it all, but it may require that we put off our major contributions to work in the outside world until after the children are grown. It may not be “women’s liberation” or “men’s liberation,” but it may, in fact, be what our children desperately need.
I look forward to your comments and questions. I hope you’ll read the full Good Men Manifesto. If you’d like a copy of the whole thing, drop me a note to [email protected]. Put “Good Men Manifesto” in the subject line. If you’d like more information about the new book, 12 Rules for Good Men, let me know and I’ll send you the latest information.
 Melvin Konner, M.D. Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy. W.W. Norton, 2015, 71.
[ii] David Gutmann, Reclaimed Power: Toward a New Psychology of Men and Women in Later Life, Basic Books, 1987, p. 190.
[iii] Joyce F. Benenson with Henry Markovits. Warriors and Worriers: The Survival of the Sexes. Oxford University Press, 2014, pps 11-14.
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