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On Male Self-Destruction

On Male Self-Destruction

Ever notice how men seem to destroy themselves?

Whether its passive poisons, hazardous work, or dangerous hobbies, men seem naturally inclined toward things that are likely to break them.

There seems to be an element of character building in the inclination. Men must demonstrate courage in order to gain respect in society, and you can’t demonstrate courage without taking a risk. Sometimes, even an unnecessary risk is better than no risk, because for men, foolhardy courage is often more appealing than discretion with an edge of cowardice.

Perhaps experience will teach us wisdom in choosing your battles and not being outright stupid. But all the wisdom in the world won’t feel worthwhile without the respect of your peers. Honor and risk comes first. This seems to make sense.

But what about self-neglect?

In my own observations, the primary mode of male self-destruction isn’t so much active torture as it is just avoiding maintenance. Doctors visits, dental visits, tests and “check-ups” of any kind are just ignored, even as these same men change the oil on their car with religious regularity.

An older family member recently lost a digit after years of neglecting an infection. In matters other than his own health, he is a top-notch system-creator and careful thinker.

This isn’t abnormal. Men are nearly twice as likely to develop periodontal disease (56.4% to 38.4%), probably because men just don’t go to the dentist. Compared to women, men don’t go and get screened for cancer either. According to research by Davis et al., 43% of men between the ages of 30 and 59 years old have never been screened for cancer, whereas only 2% of women of the same age range have never been screened.

This kind of negligence can’t be explained away by youthful pursuit of courage in the face of risk, or even just thrill-seeking. Health maintenance isn’t exciting, but not going isn’t a thrill either. Some of it might be explainable by distrust, but for the vast majority of guys I talked to, mentioning the sorts of medical check-ins they’ve been avoiding doesn’t usually prompt vituperation about quacks and corrupt healthcare systems. They’re far more likely to say “yeah… I really should go in one of these days…”

And then never go.

At least, that’s what I do.

We can’t seem to help ourselves.

It’s as if we’re drawn away from that kind of maintenance work — at least compared to women.

Now I’d like to go from observation to speculation and offer a possible explanation for why this might be the case.

I’ve heard a legend that cats weren’t domesticated by humans so much as they domesticated themselves. By instinct or accident, small cats imitated the behavior and sound of small children and tapped into the protective, maternal instincts of humans — particularly women. Humans began caring for their new feline companions, who had essentially hijacked a trait designed for a different purpose. But the cats didn’t necessarily intend this; the ones who behaved in this way just happened to do better in the Darwinian long-haul.

This may or may not be true for cats in particular, but it illustrates a possibility that we see more definitively (albeit in milder forms) elsewhere in nature, such as the cuckoo bird. Instincts that seem like they should be self-destructive on the individual level — like appealing to another species — may actually work to the advantage of the animal.

Suppose this is true of men and their self-destructive tendencies?

All animals live and die for reproduction. For humans — as with many other animals — this means attracting a female. This attraction is accomplished in all variety of manners across the animal kingdom, but what if human men have partially domesticated ourselves in the manner of cats? What if our self-neglecting tendencies are a lure for compassionate and nurturing women to bite on? Something that — evolutionarily speaking — women selected for?

As with the case of cats, the natural care-instinct that all mother-mammals possess can be hijacked. Though in the case of men, this might not be a “hijacking” so much as a counter-intuitive selective process (if a behavior is selective within a species, then it isn’t “hijacking” as it might be with cats and cuckoos). Perhaps heuristically, self-destructive tendencies are associated with positive genetic virtues… positive, that is, from the female offspring’s perspective. We can easily imagine behaviors and character qualities that are beneficial for the protection of family, but which are not beneficial to the individual male. Self-sacrificial protectiveness — the man who stands between his family and the hungry lion or bear — is not particularly beneficial to the man. But it is beneficial to his own genes, and to those who love and respect him.

Self-destructive tendencies and a lack of self-regard in matters of health and wellness are not particularly beneficial to the individual man or his family. We might imagine that perhaps self-disregard is indicative of some other desirable character quality — an unfortunate byproduct of a sought-after trait.

But if this were the case, then why is it not admired?

In Shooter, sniper Bob Lee Swagger is tricked into helping an assassination plot and then used as the fall-man. He’s tricked by an appeal to his patriotism. When reflecting upon the way he was used, and how patriotic feelings made him vulnerable to manipulation, he says “I ain’t proud of it, but I ain’t ashamed of it either.” Patriotism can be a kind of vice that we’re proud of. This is how most men feel about foolhardy courage.

That isn’t how we feel about male self-destruction.

It’s something everyone complains about, makes excuses for, or sadly accepts. Self-neglect isn’t an excess of virtue — it seems to be a kind of built-in vice, with no redeeming benefits, except…

…perhaps it hijacks something else?

Perhaps it hijacks the female compulsion for compassion and convalescent care? Such an instinct is ingrained by nature for the care of children, but other actors in nature don’t care about the intent of this or that adaptation. In fact, the instinct itself often isn’t that self-aware. It functions like a kind of algorithm: with this stimulus, here’s the response. This female instinct would have selected for men with self-destructive (or at least self-neglecting tendencies), and from the male perspective, male self-neglect would select for more nurturing and caring mothers. And yet neither side would be aware of the process, of the origin or meaning of their onw “irrational” instincts — to ignore one’s own health in one case, and to care for the careless in the other.

If there is any truth to this hypothesis, then I think two actionable conclusions follow.

First, men who are married need to overcome their impulse against self-care. This doesn’t mean trusting institutional medicine or becoming a bitch, but it does mean eating healthier, brushing your teeth, and periodically making sure that all of your organs are functioning as they should — just as you would with your guns, vehicles, tools, house, etc. Because at the end of the day, women’s respect will trump whatever maternal impulse originally drew them to a “project” guy, and it’s hard to respect a grown man who can’t maintain himself. Hopefully, recognizing the evolutionary cause of our own self-neglect will be of some help here.

Second, women need to stop nagging men to go to a doctor. Whatever emotional benefit men get from their own evolved self-destruction is felt by direct convalescence. A woman who passes off this burden to a higher institution is denying her own instincts to provide care and also denying the man the emotional rewards of being cared for by her. She may as well instruct him to go find a prostitute if he says he is in the mood for sex.

Naturally, there are illnesses and conditions which the average housewife is ill-suited to diagnose and treat, but this may be symptomatic of a greater problem in expectations. A man might hire out complicated automotive repair or rewiring his house, but there is something sad about a man who cannot change the oil in his car, swap out a bad outlet, or un-clog a toilet. In the same vein, there is something unfeminine about a woman who lacks the basic skills to diagnose and treat basic problems, especially those pertaining to simple injuries or poor diet. A woman would do well to take massage courses, first aid classes, and basic nutrition, cooking, and herbal science, just as a man should learn the basics of manual competence for home and automotive care (and, on the subject, self-care), regardless of his profession.

This Post Has 2 Comments

    1. I am not, but looks very interesting

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