Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Guys' biological clocks are ticking too?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

One of the running jokes in my favorite TV show, 30 Rock, has to do with Liz Lemon's "Big Ben-size biological clock." Liz (a professionally successful, usually single, somewhat neurotic late-30-something) is baby-crazy...in various episodes, she steals babies' shoes, accidentally walks home with a makeup artist's newborn, and picks up a (very short) guy on the street because she thinks that he's a small child and wants to ruffle his hair. Women's biological clocks are a staple of comedy - according to American culture, we're just ticking time bombs, "trolling for seed" (as Jack Donaghy puts it). Men are decidedly not - there are single men of the same age on 30 Rock, but they're mostly interested in porn. But the New York Times had a very interesting article a couple of days ago about a new study out of Australia - with the unexpected proposal that men's junk might go bad too.

We've known for a while that when the father is over the age of 40, the chances of autism skyrocket. But try throwing increased risk of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and lowered I.Q. into the mix, and you can see that even though men might be physically capable of having children later than women (and even this is questionable - older men have more trouble conceiving, just like older women), it's not always a good idea. The scientists come to a somewhat shocking conclusion - that "the optimal age for being a mother is the same as the optimal age for being a father."

This is very foreign to our cultural rhetoric. For years, women have been encouraged to have tests after the age of 35, to make sure that their child does not have Down's Syndrome. The "when" of having a baby is, for a woman, a nearly impossible scheduling challenge - too soon means no career, too late means lower odds of having a healthy baby. Liz Lemon is just one example of women in American culture: we need to beat the clock. But men - they've got all the time in the world. And so this is why women are baby-crazy and men are reluctant to settle down, why men can't commit and women need that ring immediately! But what if men were hearing that ticking just as clearly? The NYT writes:

"What if 30-year-old women started looking at 50-year-old men as damaged goods, what with their washed-up sperm, meaning those 50-year-olds might actually have to date (gasp!) women their own age? What if men, as the years passed, began to look with new eyes at Ms. Almost Right? Would men of all ages come to understand — firsthand, not just from the sidelines — the fear that the very passage of time will put your not-yet-conceived baby at risk?"

It's not healthy for any of us to think of our bodies as having "sell-by" dates. But it does recast these unfair images of modern motherhood, if the timing for fatherhood is seen as equally challenging.


At April 7, 2009 at 2:05 PM , Anonymous Rnx said...

I don't think that most of the "biological clock" concept is tied to reproduction. It's tied to physical attractiveness, which very obviously DOES decline faster for women than for men.

At April 7, 2009 at 4:21 PM , Anonymous Emily Sullivan said...

@Rnx, I totally disagree. The biological clock concept is that by about 40 years old, it becomes dangerous or impossible for women to have children. Men don't have the same limitation, and therefore don't have the same incentive to settle down in a hurry.
Secondly, there is absolutely nothing "obvious" about physical attractiveness declining faster for women than men. That is society whispering in your ear. The only reason this is true is because society deems it to be so. It has nothing to do with rate of decline, but everything to do with the cripplingly narrow concept of female beauty we hold in society.

At April 7, 2009 at 4:24 PM , Anonymous JKis said...

I don't think so. When women talk about their 'biological clock ticking' they're referring to the years left before they are unable to bear children. Lots of women (like Liz Lemon) experience seemingly inexplicable physical and emotional longings to have children as their childbearing years dwindle. It's not social (better catch a man while I can or I'll never have children), but...biological, chemical.

Incidentally, why do you think that women become unattractive with age much more quickly than men? Signs of aging happen more or less evenly among men and women; maybe you're just buying into the uneven standards for attractiveness/youthfulness that plague our culture. Gray hair makes a man 'distinguished' but it makes a woman 'all washed up', etc.

At April 7, 2009 at 4:49 PM , Anonymous Rnx said...

Or perhaps evolutionary psychology dictates that women, being less able to provide in the wild, are looking for practical traits on men, while men look for attractiveness in women as a sign of good genes.

And numerous studies have shown that the core set of attractiveness criteria are innate - even babies know what kind of faces are pretty and which are not. Saying that "that is society whispering in your ear" is simply a sign of denial. The blank slate doctrine is appealing to those who believe we can engineer people however we like, but the genomic and psychological revolutions are showing just how much hardwiring is in our pound of brain.

At April 7, 2009 at 10:43 PM , Anonymous Emily Sullivan said...

I'm going to have to disagree again. Women are not as able to provide in the wild? Women in primal societies bring about 80% of caloric intake--see Jim Mason's An Unnatural Order. I'd say that's providing just fine.
Moreover, if we use your logic, than women should have absolutely no interest in older men, because they are certainly less "able to provide in the wild" than young, lithe men. You make a rhetorical misstep when you say "men look for attractiveness in women," because you're basically saying "men are attracted to attractiveness in women." Well, duh.
What we see as attractive has some practical, evolutionary underpinnings, but it is also hugely cultural. There is nothing evolutionarily advantageous to the rail-thin standard of female beauty we are victim to today--that is pure culture.
And there is no way to tell whether a baby considers a face "pretty." Faces that are softer, less threatening, or akin to the face of his/her parents can be explanations for a baby's positive reaction to a face. We cannot deduce that the baby knows what is "pretty."

At April 8, 2009 at 2:10 PM , Blogger LSG said...

Absolutely right, Emily. Rnx, your "men were practical providers, women were helpless gene receptacles" paragraph actually made me laugh out loud. Pity about those facts.

The problem with referring everything back to evolutionary psychology is that e.p. is in the business of writing "just so stories." I don't think it's a worthless discipline -- no doubt evolution has shaped our brains in very significant ways, and it's fun to speculate about how that's playing out -- but one must always be aware of the complex interaction of biology and society. I'm extremely wary of anyone who denies that biology has any influence on behavior and belief, that it's all society, and I'm extremely wary of anyone who denies that society has a powerful influence on behavior and belief.

I believe the author of the original post was trying to explore some of this complexity...what cravings and longings and timelines are truly hardwired differently into men's and women's brains and bodies, and what role does society play?


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