What does it mean to be a man, and can you be vulnerable and still be seen as a real man? In this post, I will look at how the answer to that first question has changed over the last 200,000 years and continues to change at a pace that is unprecedented in human history and how the second has not. I hope that by looking at where we came from we can better understand the modern tension about what is expected of those of us who sport a Y chromosome.
First I want to look at the environment that our species evolved in and why this has lasting effects on us today. The ancestral environment was full of potential dangers, some from outside the tribe and some from within. Sapiens like most other primate species developed what is known as sexual dimorphism as a form of protection against both outside threats as well as threats from within. We also evolved an extremely complex frontal cortex to help us navigate our intricate social structure.
Sexual dimorphism is when there is a noticeable difference between the genders of a species. This sometimes means drastic differences in size and or appearance. A good example of this is a pair of cardinals, the male is bright red and the female is almost entirely brown, they look like different species. One of the most dramatic examples in apes is the western lowland gorilla, the males reaching 400 to 500 pounds and the females typically weighing in at under 200.
Dimorphism is driven by a variety of factors, the one I want to focus on here is physical strength. If you look at the typical Sapien male and female you will be able to see the physical difference, males tend to be larger and more muscular, this difference translates into a difference in strength. So why do males get bigger and stronger than females? The simplest answer to that is aggression. A big aggressive male was better at protecting the tribe from danger and providing food, this made them more attractive to the females.
In today's world, we don't like to think of ourselves as an aggressive species but the use of physical force to provide and protect has been a part of every male primates lineage if your ancient male ancestors were not capable of aggression when needed, then you would not be here. Competition with other males within our own tribe was one form of this aggression. Yes we were social and we helped and supported each other, we also competed for the limited breeding opportunities(females) that the tribe provided.
When males compete for females they are trying to demonstrate their good genes by showing physical prowess. This was not always with violence, sometimes it was with feats of strength or daring, yes ladies we have been showing off for a very long time, however competing directly with other males is the most straightforward form of display. Bighorn Sheep slam their heads together, African Bullfrogs flip each other, and Chimpanzees fight for the alpha spot. Sapiens over time have somewhat civilized our aggressive behavior into sports, this is why the football star in high school did better with the girls than the math star.
However, there is another side to being a male with a large brain and chimpanzees are a good example of this. Yes, they use aggression to achieve dominance over the troop but they also use social skills to keep the spot. Being the biggest and strongest will help you win fights but if you can't connect with the others on a more intimate level they will band together and overthrow you. They achieve this connection through grooming and spending time together. So it takes brawn as well as tenderness to be an effective alpha.
Sapien females are not only looking for those good athletic/aggressive genes they are also looking for a good partner to raise kids with. This is true even if they don't want kids, their genes still drive them towards individuals who demonstrate good dad qualities. These qualities look like someone who is tender, compassionate and most importantly trustworthy. For her to fully trust a male he has to demonstrate his willingness to be vulnerable.
Vulnerability builds trust by revealing your ability to open up to your partner about things that you don't share with others, like your emotions. We all tend to keep our weaknesses and insecurities to ourselves out of the fear of being judged and outcast from the tribe, this is your genes trying to protect themselves, however, our big frontal cortex allows us to override that drive.
Sharing these emotions with your partner proves your willingness to expose your soft side and trusting them to not use it against you. At first, this can feel like you are submitting to your partner and in a way, you are, and that is the point. Just because you share your vulnerabilities does not take away from your status in their eyes, just like alpha chimps will groom low ranking members of their troop in order to strengthen those connections, the troop respects them more for it.
This balance of aggression and vulnerability is something female sapiens have been looking for since we became an independent species. It what Evolutionary Psychologist Dr. Geoffrey Miller calls the tender/defender.
The major change over the millennia is the amount of aggression needed in everyday life, in fact, I think most men would benefit from finding a healthy outlet for this side of themselves so it doesn't build up. What hasn't changed is the desirability of men who exhibit vulnerability to their partners.
This truly is a balance and the better we get as men of being appropriately aggressive such as defending her, and vulnerable like sharing our emotions, the more attractive we become, and we all want to be more attractive.