These are the latest two entries in Mike LaBossiere's series on Being a Man at Talking Philosophy.
The entry on fatherhood is interesting.
One of the books I am reading right now tackled this issue indirectly through a case study. In Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities, by Ken Corbett, he discusses a young boy he worked with whose mothers were lesbian. He was conceived through a sperm donation. His parents took him to therapy to help him adjust to his unique family situation as he entered school and had to deal with questions about his moms.
One of the women gave birth to him and the other acted more in the role of the father - she enjoyed sports, fishing, and other more traditionally masculine activities. In being more "butch" than his biological mother, RJ (his non-biological mother) acted in the role of the father for the young man. As he grew up, over the course of two or three years, the boy seemed very well adjusted and happy.
Years later, the Corbett ran into the boy, now a teenager, while walking in the New England town where he spent his summers. He was a handsome, happy kid, riding his bicycle with his girlfriend on the back. He was a normal teenager, boyish energy growing into a manly body.
As I read this section, it raised issues for me in my belief that a male role model is important for boys, and preferably a biological father. It seems that from a social constructivist model, which Corbett seems to advocate in a later chapter on feminine boys (even though he is psychoanalytic in his perspective), that gender roles are more learned by following natural inclinations. If a boy is temperamentally more masculine, he will grow into that role despite the absence of a "father" if the family is stable and loving. Likewise for a more temperamentally feminine boy - no matter what a very "manly" father might want, the boy will either be himself, and be more feminine, or try to please his father and end up depressed and unhappy.
Anyway - this first post brought up some thoughts related to the book I am reading, so it seemed useful in that regard.
Mike LaBossiere ⋅ May 13, 2010
One plausible area to look for a role unique to men is that of fatherhood. There is, obviously enough, an intuitive appeal to the idea that only men can be fathers. Of course, it is quite possible to raise questions about this.
One of the first things that needs to be sorted out is the distinction between being a biological father and a father. While most fathers are biological fathers, not all of them are. For example, the father of an adopted child would still seem to qualify as a father, even if he never impregnated a woman. Defining what it is to be a biological father seems rather easy: that is the male who provide the sperm that fertilized the egg.
Of course, a little science can make this a bit messy. For example, imagine sperm engineered and grown in a petri dish. This sperm could be used to fertilize an egg, but it would seem odd to classify the sperm as the father. Perhaps the creator of the sperm would be the father, even if the scientist was a woman or a team. However, let this matter be laid aside, perhaps to be discussed more in comments.
Turning back to looking at the role of father (apart from the biological role), it could be seen as a man’s role because a father is supposed to provide a manly role model and teach the manly virtues to his sons (and presumably teach his daughters that many men lack these virtues).
Of course, this account runs into a bit of a problem. If a father is one who provides the manly role model and teaches the manly virtues, there is a clear need to define what it is to be a manly role model and which virtues are manly. In short, looking at the role of being a father does not seem to help define what it is to be a man. Rather, this seems to be a bit of a backwards approach. Instead, what is needed is an account of what it is to be a man and the nature of the manly virtues. Once those are established, then it would be possible to provide an account of what it is to be a father.
There is the possibility that there are no special manly virtues or manly roles that are unique to males. Thus, non-males could occupy those roles and have those virtues. If so, it would be possible that a woman could be a father (in this sense) or even a machine (such as an intelligent robot). Not to be sexist here, it could also be possible that a male could be a mother (non-biological).
Then again, perhaps there are such roles and virtues. So, as an exercise to the reader, what might these roles and virtues be? Also, which ones would be essential (or at least important) to being a father?
After reading an article in National Geographic about orchids and evolution, the idea struck me that it makes sense to look at being a man in the context of evolutionary theory. In the case of the orchid article, the idea was that the amazing adaptations of orchids (for example, imitating female insects so as to attract pollinators) can all be explained in terms of natural selection. While humans have a broader range of behavior than orchids, the same principle would seem to apply.
Crudely and simply put, the theory is that organisms experience random mutations and these are selected for (or against) by natural processes. Organisms that survive and reproduce pass on their genes (including the mutations). Those that do not reproduce, do not pass on their genes. Over time, this process of selection can result in significant changes in a species or even the creation of new species. While there are no purposes or goals in this “system”, it can create the appearance of design: organisms that survive will be well suited to the conditions in which they live. This is, of course, not design-if they did not fit, they would not survive to be there.
Getting back to being a man, evolution has shaped men via this process of natural selection. As such, the men who are here now are descended from men who had qualities that contributed to their surviving and reproducing. These men will, in turn, go through the natural selection process. In the case of humans, the process is often more complicated than that of birds, bees and orchids. However, as noted above, the basic idea is the same. The “men” of the non-human species have a set of behaviors that define this role. In most cases, the majority of these behaviors (nest building, fighting, displaying, and so on) are instinctual. In the case of humans, some of the behavior is probably hard-wired, but much of it is learned behavior. However, if one buys into evolutionary theory, what lies behind all this is the process of evolution. As such, being a man would simply be an evolutionary “strategy” that arose out of the process of natural selection. As such, being a man is on par with being a drake, a bull or a steer. That is, it involves being in a gender role that is typically occupied by biological males.
Of course, this does not help a great deal in deciding how one should act if one wants to be a man in a meaningful sense. But, evolution is not about what one ought to do. It is simply about what is: survive and be selected, or fail and be rejected. That said, looking at comparable roles in the animal kingdom as well as considering the matter of evolution (and biology) might prove useful in looking at the matter scientifically.