The crisis of masculinity: An evolutionary perspective (1999)

In Spanish in Perspectivas Sistemicas, 12(57):3-8, 1999, and in Terapia y Familia, 17(1):3-17, 2004.

Author: Sluzki CE

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Manuscript original 6-17-98, revised 6-14-04


Carlos E. Sluzki, MD

I will present in this chapter a blueprint of a hypothesis about the current difficult predicament of females and of males of our species –both in terms of their reciprocal relations and of their relationship with their social/contextual world. This hypothesis is lodged within the broad evolutionary model known as “Deep Ecology” (Capra, 1996), an integrative worldview that “does not separate humans – or anything else – from the natural environment” (Capra, Op.cit. p.7) but assumes an intrinsic interdependence of individuals and societies embedded in turn in the cyclical processes of nature.

Our proposal may be summarized as follows: the genetic potentials and constraints of a species, the social norms and rules of that species, and the environment that hosts it, interact and co-evolve over the millennia as a complex ecological system. Now, co-evolution is a concept that applies to processes that occur over long periods, not over short ones. When a short evolutionary lapse is considered – a few centuries, perhaps – changes that occur at any given level (or between only two levels) of the complex ecological system composed by genetic potential-limitations/ societal norms, mores and organization/ environment will be expressed as disjunctive dissonances and grumbles in the others, triggering, rather than complex collective changes, attempts at correcting the perceived deviation (through feedback mechanisms of all kind, including over-corrections, neutralizing “back-pedaling”, et cetera.) The disjunction and distress will translate into malaise and suffering, expressed at the macro-ecological level by draughts or floods and temperature changes, at a political level by invasions, inquisitions or wars, at a social level for clashes between behaviors and expectations and revolutions, in plants by their loosing foliage, in amoebas by changes in motility or color, in other, more evolved, animal species by an increase or a reduction of motor agitation and other signals of distress, and in human beings by a reduction in body defenses, emotional distress, verbal expressions of suffering, and many other behaviors.

By “genetic components” I mean proclivities that have been predetermined at birth by the chromosomal programming and that express themselves in terms of tendencies, resiliencies and vulnerabilities. An example of these may be the alarm reaction, a universal trait with multiple variations, expressed in the fact that some newborns react to a loud noise with extreme startle while others react only minimally, or in important differences in terms of reaction to the experience of hunger, with despair in some cases and with signals of minimal discomfort in another. Interestingly, calm babies have a calming effect on mothers while hyper-reactive babies generate mothers generate anxiety and insecurity in their mothers. In turn, a habitually anxious and over-reactive mother will tend to facilitate timidity and reactivity in their children, regardless of their genetic tendency, while a tranquil mother will promote calmer babies, and, later, children who explore the world with greater ease. While in all cases genetic tendencies combine with early relational experiences to generate what later consolidates as personality (stylistic) traits, studies of monozygotic (identical) twins raised from birth on by different social milieus have shown up to what uncanny point the shared genetic material favors replicas not only in terms of physical resemblance in adulthood, but also amazing concordance in terms of life style, social style, vocations, grooming styles, and even the type of mate their choose (Carson, Rothstein and Bloom, 1999.) But it is equally important to underline that genetic imprint does not equate with determinism. The specialized literature on genetics is quite eloquent in this regard: there are important variations in the expression of any given genetic trait in any given population. Biologically, they are affected by mutations and recombination, including what is called random genetic drift and genetic flow (Futuyma 1986, p.12). However, in the long run, natural selection processes tend to facilitate the retention of traits that are useful for the survival of both the individual and the collective. This includes traits that equip the individual – and thus, the collective – not only for current, ongoing circumstances, but for novel, future contingencies, that is, those that contain what Bateson (1972) called deutero-learning clauses, the capacity to learn to learn.

In the past 100 years, and more acutely in the past 50 years, we are witnessing –or perhaps we are collective protagonists of – a tension between men and women that has reached the rhetoric level of “the war between the sexes,” that reached dramatic proportions not only measured by the vast literary production –including a large number of self-help books – but by the frequency with which it is defined as a source of malaise both in women and in men who consult in clinical practice, either to change the other, or to dissolve marriages gone astray by shifts of reciprocal expectations.

The thesis proposed in this article is that the current gender crisis may be understood as an indication that the species is experiencing one of those systemic pains of temporary reduction of fit between genetic constraints, societal norms, and environment offers. This explanation is not only plausible but, in my view, useful for the navigation throughout this crisis… while the macro-system takes its time to finds a new fit (it may take thousands of years, though, so please do not hold your breath!)

What follows will paddle in that general direction.


A few years ago, my wife and I, at the time in Kauai for a professional conference, decided to take a deserved day off and join a group excursion that included kayaking upstream a beautiful river, followed by a stroll through a semi-tropical forest until reaching what was touted as an enchanting cascade. While paddling our kayak-for-two we started a conversation with our guide – a sturdy young Samoan, full of jest and energy. That conversation drifted to the theme of couples – he was engaged to be married soon – and the behavior of couples on double kayaks. In an enthusiastic burst of everyday-life philosophizing, and assuming that the kayaking experience reflected how couples function in life, he wondered how couples manage to remain together. Some pairs, he acknowledged, would enjoy the whole beauty of the kayak wilderness trip, but too many would fight all the way through the experience, and continue their brawl during the subsequent marvelous hikes through tropical forests toward enchanted secret waterfalls. One man, he chuckled, simply jumped off the kayak swearing that he wouldn’t continue sharing the ride with “that woman”, and started to swim his way back to the landing where the trip started, a couples of miles down the river...while the woman kept on kayaking away, actively ignoring his display. Another man, after fighting with his wife all the way up the river, when the forest hike started took the guide aside and asked him to accelerate the pace in order to leave his wife behind and, if possibly, loose her. Still another couple ended up dueling with the ores while still in the kayak. One woman refused to return in the same boat with her husband, complaining that he wasn’t really rowing and was dumping all the effort to her. Another furiously accused him of purposely not following her precise instructions in terms of rhythm and depth of the strokes.

What a challenge it is, to be in a kayak for two! The one in the back seat, generally assumed to be the male (kayaks are built so that there is more leg space in the back seat), controls the flimsy pedals of the rudder; hence, he is supposed to steer the boat. This position facilitates the possibility of accommodating to the front person’s rhythm of strokes, but simultaneously reduces his visibility, as the front person occupies the center of his visual field. The one in the front seat, generally assumed to be the woman, has the best view of where the kayak is going and of unexpected floating obstacles, less visual awareness of the partner’s moves, generally less muscle mass to respond to emergencies and, of course, no control of the rudder. It should be added that, given the sitting configuration, the one in the back can more easily be accused to hit (accidentally or otherwise) with the oars the one who is in the front than vice-versa, and both have equal possibility of splashing the other through any (accidental or otherwise) clumsy move. In sum, kayaks for two seem to have been designed by a genial and slightly perverse experimental social scientist aiming at exploring the Prisoner’s Dilemma in action!

Short of redesigning double kayaks to increase flexibility and reduce inter-gender conflagrations, given the current configuration, the ideal organization would probably be that the one in the front be in charge of establishing the rhythm of the strokes and the fine-tuning of the direction of the kayak but accommodate to requests for rhythm changes by the other the one in the back be in charge of the broad direction of the kayak, but accommodates to requests for action by the other of an emergent nature when an obstacle suddenly appears and calibrate his/her moves to the one in the front both share the chore of the propulsion in proportion to their muscle mass ...and, if feasible, both enjoy the scenery and the ride with each other.

But in our daily life (even in enchanted sceneries such as Kauai!), events and circumstances are multi-determined, and only partially responsive to a bucolic setting. What if one of the two is a back-seat driver on a regular basis? Or, as they say in the lingo of substance abuse, a co-dependent? Or, more circumstantially, let us assume that they forgot the bug repellent, or the suntan lotion. Who was supposed to remember about it to start with (according to the opinion of each, which may not coincide!)? Assume that it is too cold, or too hot, or the seat too hard, for one of them? Whose’ idea was it to engage in that darn kayak trip, to start with (according to each of them, of course!)? Or perhaps the night before the kayak trip one of them wanted to make love, but his or her subtle overtures were turned down or simply not picked up by the other, or who wasn’t in the mood, or was too tired to notice, or fell asleep before all those signals could be properly displayed? The following day the spurned one may carry over some residual frustration, or resentment, or shame, which, when enacted, is perceived by the other as a careless display of bad temper coming out of the blue and becomes, in turn, slightly offended. What if the man in the couple is a Latino macho, and refuses to relinquish any function, experiencing each of her inputs in each juncture of the decision tree of collaboration as a challenge to his virility? What if she is a stark Feminist, and experiences each of his moves as an attempt at subjugation? What if both?

Ladies and gentleman, women and men are stubbornly sharing the kayak of life, and the splashing is becoming more explicit, with increasing risks of tipping the boat. Is it that there has taken place a rebellion of the front-sitters, overburdened with a load that continues to be heavy enough to cloud the potential pleasures of the ride? Is it that the back-sitters are becoming weaker, or tamer, or more sensitive and understanding, or beaten by the front-sitters’ sheer strength and solidarity? Is it that the design of the kayak has insidiously changed over the past 100, 400, or perhaps 10,000, years? To attempt at answering those questions will be devoted the rest of this presentation.


The recently ended century has witnessed a consistent revision of what is perceived as “masculine” and as “feminine.” Until the current era, masculinity was defined unambiguously by its practices: hunting (and, broadly speaking, provision of food and shelter), the defense as well as the search for new territory (the expansion of frontiers and hence conquest of new land), and collective security (and therefore politics). During the past century, and more acutely during the past 50 years, there has been rapid erosion of the feasibility and prestige of each and all of those activities, as well as of a questioning of the prior the male exclusivity of access to them. The latter issue, that is, gender balanced access to those activities, has been experienced by men as a further erosion of an already dramatically shrinking range and territory that was fitting the expression of what was culturally defined, and personally experienced, as the masculine.

This process has also been framed as a war by women against the oppressive practices of men, that is, with an emphasis on a critical view of men’s behavior, not only by the vanguard of the Feminist movement but also by sensitive men supportive of changes in those ways

Some bits of history are pertinent here. As it is probably known, both First and Second World Wars – all-out wars that involved dozens of millions of young men (and killed several million in the process) – accelerated many social processes, at least in the US. Countless women and minorities, until then relegated to homemaking/childrearing or to equally under-rated and underpaid positions as field-workers or as servants, were called to fulfill their war duty in factories and offices, in order to take the place of men who were marching to the front. When the war was over and men returned from the front, women and minorities were invited rather eloquently to return to their previous subordinate positions.

And, to the surprise of many, they didn’t accept that invitation. And when that invitation became more coercive, they organized themselves. Thus, the civil rights movement was born. And thus the women’s movement – until then expressed most powerfully with the suffragettes, burst into the Feminist movement. The oppressed minorities had found their voice.

The focus on gender and the whole Feminist revolution is, of course, the result of the struggle by women. The males, quite by the contrary, have remained rather confused, unable to translate into language and action their own predicament. As the American folk philosopher Garrison Keillor putted it, “Manhood, once an opportunity for achievement, now seems like a problem to overcome” (Keillor, 1992). There have been multiple recent attempts at introspection about these issues by men, but, let’s face it, introspection doesn’t seem to be a masculine forte. The “men’s movement” never seems to have materialized, so the “gender” issue remains predominantly a story about women. . In addition, the direction of the change that men may undertake in consonance with those espoused by Feminism are far from apparent and are not culturally facilitated.

Beyond terrible simplifications, how to describe, from a male’s perspective, this current lack of fit, this dis-ease not only between genders but also within genders? My speculation carries me to the evolution of the human species.

It is estimated that that differentiation between modern apes and humans, and the dawn of the human species, took place 3.5 million years ago, if we take as a marker the Australopithecus afarensis (Johansen & Edey, 1981). In turn, the Homo Sapiens, that cosmopolitan species of hunters-gatherers, appeared in the scene some 200,000 years ago, only 6% of the evolutionary time of human life. And since we started to differentiate from other evolutionary branches, our species have been living in gatherings – be it in caves, or small enclaves. The survival need of the hunter-gatherer group required – and still does in the few current tribes following pre-agricultural traditions – a distribution of roles, to assure both preservation and innovation. Those traits are profound aspects of us, so pervasive that they still play a role in present day.

But before going into this evolutionary story in more detail, I wish to as you, the reader, to engage in an experiential exercise that requires your collaboration. It will require some visualization, or tapping into your bank of memories, so if you evoke prior experiences better with your eyes closed, please close your eyes. And relax, as it will be a pleasant experience.

Imagine yourself, dear reader, at 12, or 13. You are at your house. Somebody knocks at the door, or rings the bell. Who is it? It is your best friend, you pal, your buddy, just dropping by. Now, where do you go – inside the house or out? And what do you do? Imagine that, visualize the scene, see yourselves going with your pal wherever you are going, do whatever you are doing, enact in your mind your body positions, your activity. Please visualize that event as thoroughly as you can that event, stay with it for one minute.

The vast majority of women will describe that they invited their best friend in, they go to her bedroom or her living-room, sit perhaps on the bed or in an armchair, facing each other, with a lot of eye contact, and chat as main activity. The vast majority of men will state that they discussed with their friend what to do, and they go out to either play some game – basketball, baseball, soccer, biking – or fish or, in some cases, simply walk, interspersing periods of silence and personal conversation; they would rarely be face-to-face and eye-to-eye, but will maintain a parallel body behavior.

Which is the origin of this remarkable gender-differential trait that seems to hold with minor differences across cultures? Is it only an expression of norms and mores of this Century, or of these past 500 years? Or is it possible that that assumption (that it is an expression of norms and mores) may derives from the relatively recent arrogant presupposition that we are born with a clean slate, severed from our evolutionary roots, tabula rasa, to be imprinted only by our culture?

Let us return to the cave, or the village, or wherever the hunter/gatherer group was calling home from time to time, a familiar place of respite in their nomad life, or wherever they were camping overnight in their never-ending wandering life.

For sheer survival in that rather hostile world filled with saber-tooth tigers and other predators (not to mention unfriendly humanoid neighbors), appropriate sexual dimorphism, that is, gender differences, already present in the forbearing genus, was enhanced with social rules. Some members of the tribe, those with more physique du role and potential for aggressive acts, were located in the periphery and kept an eye outward, i.e., from where both risks and food for all would come. There were defined as the protectors of the collective and the hunters, bringing to the clan its most nourishing sustenance –concentrated proteins and fat in the form of animal meat. For males to look at each other, even to be too interested in another man’s musing, would have been risky, as it would distract them from the most instrumental task at hand: keeping an eye for enemies and for food. And when those individuals would make an incursion into that unknown and dangerous territory beyond the enclave, for reasons of hunting or scouting for a more friendly environment, it was also for the best collective interest that they maintain vigilance in silence rather than obscuring possible sounds of danger with too much conversation, or missing visual clues of risk by facing each other. They were bound to look outward, sitting or standing in parallel and in relative silence, with only occasional eye contact. Nevertheless, these scouts seem to have been highly bonded among them and with the collective. They would bring back the core nourishment, and distribute it, they would risk their lives to be defenders and caretakers of the tribe, and, sometimes, they were porters of the young children during seasonal migrations (as many male primates and current hunter-gatherer groups are).

In turn, there were members of that tribe that had other tasks at hand, namely, the “nesting”, that is, the creation and maintenance of the group’s basic lodging and heat needs, the production of needed garments through weaving or curing furs, the collection of staples with less caloric value but easier to preserve, such as grain, and, even more important, the never-ending task of child-bearing, rearing and caring. For that purpose, face-to-face collaboration was essential among them, as mutuality and social closeness maximized many of those tasks. To consider one essential activity, the more collective the task of early child-rearing under harsh conditions, the better the chance of survival of the infant (this has been shown to be the case in studies about the collective habits of many anthropoids.) The distribution of tasks was clear, differential and functional. It should be underlined again that this is not a rational behavior ab initio, but a generic imprinting that was complemented with the structuring of behavior in terms of social norms. The budding societal rules of these groups evolved in fit with gender-specific tendencies and cultural distribution of roles, providing interdependence between preservation and innovation that optimized the tribal circumstances and needs.

The view espoused here transcends a dichotomy between biological and cultural variables that may otherwise set up a nature/nurture argument that either supports the status quo (“We were born this way! We cannot be different!”) or slam men for failing to change (“You don’t change because you don’t want to!”). Within that lens, it is coherent to assume that some basic gender differences have an evolutionary gender-specific substratum; in turn, the culture will be composed in part –that is, it will select, in the Darwinian sense – component rules that will fit the expression of those embedded traits. But, of course, cultures, which start as ad hoc habits, in turn end up becoming in themselves extremely complex systems, with a dynamic of their own, while varying, in the long run, with changes in the surrounding world.

Returning to prehistory, everything seems to indicate that the drift of our specie’s cultural practices away from the fit with the specie’s philogenetic proclivities was accelerated very substantially some 10,000 to 14,000 years ago, when hunting and gathering, which had been the central activity and the cultural pivot for millions of years, became insufficient to support the constantly increasing population (Shepard, 1973) . That may have also coincided with, if not facilitated by or perhaps enhancing, an evolution of the mind of the species toward a more complex, cognitive fluid, mind (Mithen, 1996). The dawn of the agricultural revolution started the domestication of plants and animals, which in turn required a change of habits, of habitats, of priorities, and, broadly speaking, of culture. It triggered a major shift in skills and attributes from both men and women, among which the reduction of the need for men to enact outward-oriented practices. For the vast majority of men, the shift to agriculture implied a drastic change of priorities, especially when agriculture ceased to be voluntary subsistence farming and became coercive, with the emergence of the centralized political power (Prior, 1971). Life in the fields became a heavy daily, boring, routine, a loss of the tribe to care for, a marginal subsistence in which the chances of being exploited were much greater than that of being free willing (or exploiting others, for the matter). Women were subjected to equally drastic shifts in their own practices as they progressively lost the vital daily experience of the female collective; were condemned to produce children as cheap labor (emulating the barnyard animals) and not infrequently had to work the land along the male counterpart, if not by themselves, while the male would search some male-fitting stuff to do, when not forced to go to war or being enslaved to other men who controlled the land.

Perhaps this progressive lack of fit was accelerated some 3000 years ago, during the pinnacle of the Greek and Roman civilizations, when, in the observation of Foucault (1984), the incorporation of the first person singular in speech, that is, the self-referential recognition of the individual, displaced the assumption that each one of us was part and parcel of a collective. In that way, the first linga francas exported the existential illusion, currently still in vogue, that the ego is the center of the personal and social universe reinforced when the industrial revolution contributed to the loosening of the security entailed in the reciprocal obligations.

Be it a process 14, 000, 3,000, 400 or 30 years in the making – probably a bumpy progression from then to now – we men may be currently enticed by some components of our genetic cum social program to fulfill some activities that our era has precluded, or transcended.

All these contextual transformations and that progressive loss of fit take place within a society that raises us with stereotypes galore. Men are in an extremely violent social situation, as the suppression of the multiple expressions of the role are accompanied by strong social injunctions that equate those expressions with the masculine, accompanied by social prohibition for emotional exchanges and the loss of the experience of reciprocal support. This ecological description does not excuse or absolves the responsibility for the violent acts that this contradiction may breed in men, but opens a window to appreciate the deep pain that this opaque clash generate in men.

Little wonder that men –at least those of the Judeo-Christian tradition – are confused and bewildered. Socialized as well as programmed to be strong, silent, noble, protectors, audacious, responsible for the group, there is less and less context in which to display those traits. Like in Pirandello’s 1921 theater play “Six actors in search of an author” (Pirandello, 1998), men are searching for ways of recognizing themselves as men, while suffering due to their inability to establish a harmony with their environment. Sometimes, as their own style is no longer considered appropriate, they try and shed their emotional illiteracy and learn from women how to behave in the interpersonal world. Of course, to behave womanly, while a good learning experience, does not necessarily promote the cross-gender fit, as many women’s behaviors, needs and expectations are in turn in crisis, as a result of their own evolutionary mandate. And the “Let’s go to the wood to be among men and play the drums and read poetry” hybrid solution hasn’t recruited too many adepts. It could also be proposed within this frame that the recent resurgence of Fundamentalism and protracted wars is but a desperate attempt at recreating the previous conditions of fit, that is, a reaction to the progressive drift away from the prior harmony between gender-differentiated tendencies, societal norms, and nature.


Each and every living species responds in one or another way to the ill effects of high density. However, the expressions of those responses vary markedly (Futuyma, 1986). Perhaps the most universal response is to disperse, to find a new habitat. When that is not viable, some species resort to mutations; they generate, for instance, wings, or the capacity to breath out of the water. Others systematically cannibalize newborns, or at least engage in infanticide. Others unleash unprecedented violent displays of cooperative murder, including major battles that leave dead half of the population. Or they jump collectively off a cliff. Or their bodily defenses weaken as a result of stress and good part of the species dies from one disease or another.

Hunter-gatherers, it should be noted, had very few offspring, their number being ecologically balanced with traits of the environment. This was due not only because a rigorous climate or a period of unmitigated hunger would increase dramatically child mortality, but also because the woman’s menstrual cycle and hence her reproductive capacity are finely calibrated to the environment: high recurrent exertion as well as low nutrition will result in a discontinuation of the ovulation and menstruation (as is well known by the victims of food crisis in Sudan, by professional athletes, and by anorexic women). Hence, the female in the hunter-gatherer group would be able to conceive only when the environment was friendly.

The Agricultural Revolution led to a reduction of the feast-famine cycles and a better protection against inclement weather, which in turn resulted in an increase in the procreation potentials, which fitted the convenience of having more children to use as cheap labor: children became a commodity to be maximized. And in the course of 12 to 15,000 years our species total world population jumped to an estimated 10 million to its current 6 billion plus, with a yearly growth exceeding 1.4%. In the past century our species may have passed, without knowing, a collective threshold of tolerated population density, its growth unmitigated by the recent lack of wars that are massive enough, pestilences that are pandemic enough, or meteorites that are voluminous enough.

It is possible that all of us, females and males alike, are currently reacting to the overpopulation in our planet with some atavistic mandate. We as a species have tried several of the solutions listed above – not growing wings, yet – but, as mentioned already, most of them are losing prestige in our occidental socio-cultural environment. So, creatively, new attempts at confronting overcrowding may be brewing among us as alternatives. One is the widely documented progressive reduction of the sperm count in the human males across cultures and nations, a very reasonable mechanism to begin to reduce the population growth. Another possible reasonable method to reduce population growth would be a progressively increasing militant aversion between genders, with a reduction in the number of babies being made by conventional methods.

Summarizing, perhaps the current temporary decline of the quality of inter-gender life in our species may have been facilitated by an overlapping between the already discussed evolutionary lack-of-fit and an originally independent default counteracting mechanism triggered in our species by overcrowding.


Once compounding the problem with this variable, let us return to the main blueprint. I have exposed to the design of a hypothesis about what may lie at the core of the masculine crisis, namely, a reduction of an ecological fit between atavistic proclivities, societal rules, and the environment, that affects men, at least, or perhaps our species as a whole.

This viewpoint, while respectful and supportive of the Feminist struggle, does not assume that the crisis of masculinity is the product of the Feminist movement, nor the cause of it. However, as it is disjunctive to some of the purely socio-cultural hypothesis espoused by some representatives of Feminism, it merits an additional clarification. There is extended evidence that our current society is fraught with multiple oppressive practices against women, including violence by men against women as well as many other social displays enacted by men to the detriment of women’s self-determination. Feminism constitutes an extraordinary political movement toward the expansion of the women’s access to all spheres of life, and I do not wish to contribute to reduce the rate of change nor to provide any argument that may encroach that pace. However, I believe that, as a reaction to a realization of the subordinate status of women, the Feminist movement may have fallen into the categorical error of confusing culturally embedded traits with individual blame (not responsibility, blame). From that error may have derived the relentless male-bashing that has pervaded the Feminist literature and in Feminist daily practices, which assumes that individual oppressive behaviors by males are in each case intentional acts of preservation of inequalities, rather than cultural remnants of daily life practices. In that sense, the dominant Feminist discourse is like a powerful software with an embedded virus: it empowers at the expense of establishing a story of victimization and blame, and it forces a polarization within couples or families. It contains the potential for evolution, but remains accompanied by vindication and entitlements, as victims require victimizers. Stating it otherwise, the assumption that men are emotionally handicapped, violent-prone, controlling and domineering individuals, in the process of being dislodged from a position of power by the women united by the feminist movement, while extremely useful in many cases, it is not a good enough story either for women or for men as a collective. It may be useful to foster welcomed local social changes. But it occurs through the easy way out of creating a scapegoat (i.e., by means of externalizations), a view that looses the grasping of long-range processes. In addition, it doesn’t help in the rowing.

It should be underlined that the evolutionary hypothesis proposed here cannot, indeed, be proven right or wrong (i.e., it cannot be falsified). But, of course, none of the other hypothesis can be proven either. If, until further notice, none of them is a falsifiable, i.e., provable, hypotheses, how do we choose one of them as having a more transformative potential to organize of our conversation – -therapeutic or otherwise?

A litmus test may lie in the criteria proposed for a “better-formed story” (Sluzki, 1992). In any conversation (and even more in a therapeutic conversation with an individual, couple, family, group, organization, stuck in a stalemate), a new story will be favored and will have a greater chance of being adopted as alternative to a prior dominant story if the new story is feasible – that is, is grounded in prior information and recognizable experiences, and not contradict consensual norms or cultural myths elegant- – that is, is internally coherent, harmonious and smooth evolutionary – that is, contains a time arrow, specifying potentials for change, learning and growth equanimous – that is, locates all characters in a preferential locus, without pre-defining victims and victimizers, sanes and insanes, nobles and villains, tricksters and suckers ethical – that is, fosters respect and concern for self and for others, avoidance of oppression and pain, nurturance of growth and of joy, reciprocal support, and sense of collective responsibility.

The proposed evolutionary story has, I believe, some potential advantages over the more dominant ones:

  • it is equally feasible, that is, viable in terms of ethological, paleo-anthropological and anthropological information as well as in terms of daily experiences
  • it is internally coherent and harmonious, showing no more use of straw-men than any other currently dominating story
  • it is more evolutionary, not only in its logic but in terms of its introducing ideas that contain potentials for growth and for relational changes, challenging us in a different way to relate to one another and to the environment
  • it is more equanimous, as it defines the pains of both genders – I highlighted the dis-ease of men as that was the focus of this conference, but it may apply equally for women – while doesn’t disqualify the basic tenets of a Feminist struggle for full access of women to their own full potentials and choices
  • and it is more ethical, as, through highlighting different plights, it fosters respect and concern for both self and the others, and a sense of collective responsibility.

Von Foerster (1984), talking from a social constructionist platform, has defined as a categorical imperative to act so as to increase the range (and, I would add, the quality) of our options, and those of our patients. The evolutionary hypothesis here proposed may be useful in this regard, as it expands the range of viable stories within our reach on the subject of the tension between genders. Therefore, it enriches our options as therapists and, hopefully to us all, as participants in the complex cooperative process and the delicate balance entailed in rebuilding the kayak-for-two… while we are paddling in the middle of the river. It may even help us to enjoy the ride.


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  • Hall, A.D. and Fagen, R.E.: “Definition of System”. General Systems, 1:18-28, 1956.
  • Johanson, Donald and Edey, Maitland: Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1981
  • Keillor, Garrison: “Guys” (Op-ed article), The New York Times, Nov 27, 1992
  • Mithen, Steven: The Prehistory of the mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science. London, Phoenix, 1996.
  • Paglia, Camille: Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1990
  • Pirandello, L.: Six Characters in Search of an Author. (English version by Eric Bentley) New York, Signet, 1998
  • Prior, Daphne: “State of Surrender”. The Science, 11:1, 1971 (cited in Shepard, 1973)
  • Shepard, Paul: The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game. New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973
  • Sluzki, C. : “The ‘better-formed’ story”. Chapter (in Italian) in G. Cecchin and M. Mariotti, (eds.): L’Adolescente e i suoi Sistemi. Rome: Kappa , 1992.
  • Weldon, F: “Where women are women and so are men: In today’s Britain, every man’s a queen.” Harper’s Magazine, May 1998, pp.65-69


  1. Invited Address to ‘The Men’s Project: A Conference on Strategic Approaches to Men’s Problems in Therapy.“ The Family Therapy Institute of Washington, DC. Bethesda, MD, June 4-6, 1998
  2. Director of Psychiatric Services, Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, Santa Barbara CA 93102-0689, and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, University of California Los Angeles. E-mail:
  3. Cf. its roots in the classic definition of system proposed by Hall and Fagen, 1951.
  4. The “Prisoner’s Dilemma” is a decision model and a research tool, frequently used in experimental economics, that allows to analyze the process of decision making between parties when the earnings of one is contingent upon the other’s decision to cooperate or not: if both decide to cooperate, both obtain a modest reward, while if one decides to cooperate and the other not to, the earnings go to the one who did not, but if both decide not to cooperate, they both loose.
  5. While the Nazi movement deserves the copyright credit for its motto “Kinder, Kuche and Kirche” (“Children, kitchen and church”) as a guide to the expectations of all good Arian woman, the reality is that that summarized quite well the dominant expectations for them all over the world.
  6. These men, by the way, have been frequently marginalized by the Feminist movement with the reasonable argument similar to the one used by African-American to reject their allied Whites the consolidation of the civil rights movement: (“Your helping us weakens us. You do your own changing”).
  7. Not everybody would agree with that. A powerful dissident feminist voice, Camille Paglia (1991), argues that the human species created the societal institution to control the essential violence inherent (genetically programmed? I would extrapolate) to our species.
  8. Survival-based groups require also a more hierarchical structure for purposes of effective collective action. This may contribute also to explain – perhaps through a combination of genetic proclivities and cultural remnants – why men are more impressed or intimidated by hierarchies than women, and more drawn to place themselves in hierarchies, a trait that may impair friendship and non-hierarchical collaborative stances among men.
  9. These gender-specialized differences it tasks may fit also with an evolutionary understanding of Gilligan’s seminal distinction between “justice” and “care” orientation of moral development as dominant framework, respectively, in men and in women (Gilligan, 1982). Cf. also Gilligan and Attanucci, 1988.)
  10. Gender dismorphism has proven so useful that sexual traits and markers have been enhanced over the millennia in both genders by an instinctive, universal proclivity and pleasure for self-decorations (cf. Shepard, 1976, p.119), which function as temporary devices to highlight socially those traits for purposes of attraction, hierarchy or expression of intent. (Look for a moment at yourselves in terms of dressing, make-up, hair arrangement. What does it inform others about you?)
  11. The population explosion coincided with global climactic changes – specifically, drier environmental conditions – that were associated to the end of the last Ice age (Cohen, 1977).
  12. The agricultural revolution started with subsistence farming (clear evidence of such practices in Jerico some 7000 years ago, with semi-autonomous, self-supporting townships of some 125 individuals). In fact, harvesting, an activity akin to gathering, was defined as a female role, and hence the harvest rituals were dominated by female symbols, terms and images. However, men kept control of the political order: the hunter’s prerogative to distribute the kill expanded to the control of the wealth and the “arrogant concept of land ownership” (Shepard, 1973, p.126). As larger extensions were annexed for cultivation, slavery expanded multifold, the capture of future slaves became an added reason for wars… and female icons were replaced by animal deities.
  13. In many Islamic societies, however, the masculine function as a protector/custodian is highly valued and jealously maintained –even though the female opinion tends to be subjugated and their opinion seldom heard. For a discussion of some pros and cons of those family structures, cf Sluzki 2003.
  14. The biologically-based genetic traits that are part of the evolutionary equilibrium have high penetrance (the percentage of individuals in which the philogenetic effect is manifest), variable expressivity (the magnitude of the philogenetic effect) and norm of reaction (the variety of expressions under different environmental conditions) (Futuyma 1986, p.53).
  15. This shouldn’t obscure the fact that the Agricultural revolution resulted, contrary to popular belief, in a decline in quality of life and an increase in health problems (Cohen, 1977)
  16. However, I cannot discard the possibility that this last statement, and many others throughout the paper, are remnants of a masculine chauvinism that resists acknowledging the female leadership for those changes
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