The Superfluous Man?

So Hanna Rosin is getting some attention by playing with the big idea that “men are finished.” That doesn’t mean they will literally disappear. It’s just women don’t need them anymore.

 Well, for the foreseeable future, they will continue to need them for their sperm and for sexual enjoyment. What we don’t need is what we regard as the “social construction” of the manly man, the person who brings indispensable sex or gender specific qualities and capabilities to the table.

 Not only do men no longer rule, they’re no longer even worth their keep.

 It’s women who excel at picking up the skills required to flourish in our service and information economy. Students at our good colleges are predominately women. Women under 30 have better jobs and make more money than men of the same age. That “gender gap” will continue to widen. Experts say that everything that goes on in school from first grade onward is biased in favor of women and against the spiritedness (sometimes now called attention deficit) that is more pronounced in men. School really has become a “girl thing.”

 The woman’s experience in college surely is distorted by the competitive marketplace created by the scarce resource that is men. Not only are the men scarce, but they’re inferior, on the whole, to the women in terms of both intellectual performance and moral maturity. So college administrators imagine that their female students must be unhappy. One solution: Lots of colleges have decided to create or restore football programs. Football, after all, is one area in which women have no chance of being competitive. But there’s mixed evidence on whether women who come to college to learn and be productive are that impressed by men who come to college to play a game. (We’re obviously not talking Division I football here, but the colleges that compete at lower levels.)

 Football does remind us, especially here in the South, that we continue be impressed by strong and noble warriors when we can see them in action. It also reminds us that sports, in general, remain a meritocracy dominated by men. Being a warrior, though, seems to be less of a marketable skill or competency than ever. 

 One consequence of course of good colleges being dominated by women is that many women have to “marry down”--meaning marrying a man who has less of what it takes to flourish in the 21st century competitive marketplace. The “alpha wife” who’s a much better earner than her husband (or boyfriend) has gone from being very rare to almost typical. When you add in the exploding number of single moms, it’s clear that a shrinking minority of women are economically dependent on men. Meanwhile, the number of male “dependents” grows steadily. The husband or boyfriend becomes another mouth to feed.

 It seems that when men don’t have decent, steady jobs, they often lose their will to be fathers in the full sense, to be responsible parents. As the economic situation of members of lower part of middle class (where so many relatively unskilled and marginally productive men are found) becomes more precarious, families, from a traditional view, become more pathological. But “pathological” seems judgmental. Families become more matriarchal, as women step up and figure out they can get by--or more than get by--without reliable men.

One piece of evidence in favor of the theory that gender roles are socially constructed is that women, as they ascend to economic and relational dominance, become more confidently aggressive. One piece of evidence against that theory, of course, is that men, when they come to be ruled by women, don’t take on the “gender roles” traditionally assigned to women: Being the “domestic goddesses” who run the home and take most of the responsibility for nurturing children. That means, of course, that our country is plagued by numerous “caregiving” issues that really can’t be resolved by government policies. It’s not so easy, after all, for most single moms to do it all.

 It goes without saying that the entry of women as free individuals into economic and political life is progress for which we should all be proud. Someone might even say that what Rosin calls “the end of men” might be the fulfillment of our Constitution’s promise that every American be understood to be a free and equal person. But we’re stuck with the fact that the emerging world is one in which women are, in the obvious ways, doing much better than men. And anyone with eyes to see knows that both men and women wish our men were better, were better at “manning up” to find their relational places both as men and as persons. Nobody can really deny that it would be better if men who father kids were fathers in full, even if they married (or even hooked up) up (as obviously they sometimes--just not often enough--are).

For now, we’re also stuck with thinking about the fact that a freer country is in some ways a lonelier one.

The only realistic conclusion, of course, is to remember that "the end of men" gets its force as a "big idea" by being a socially contingent exaggeration.

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Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
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Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP / Getty Images
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.