Faculty Book

Why Women Rule: Mel Konner takes a stand for female superiority in his latest book

By Susan Carini 04G

konner

don morris

Women can forget equality with men, warns Mel Konner. 

It’s even better than that. Why should women embrace ‘mere’ equality when their movement is toward superiority? It is maleness that has Konner worried in his latest book. 

And at just this startling juncture, the author pauses politely to let an audience of both genders catch their breath. As they do, picture the pages of gender history flipping furiously forward.

In Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy, Konner—an MD and Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Program in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology—sees it all through the lens of biology. 

AND BOY, IT LOOKS BLEAK

Konner announces his thesis with a light touch, but collectively his findings feel heavy, at least as he does the initial roll call. With maleness comes a shortened life span; higher mortality at all ages; an inability to reproduce; premature hair loss; brain defects resulting in attention deficit, hyperactivity, and conduct disorder; and an excess of outward and self-directed aggression. Flip these levers, says Konner, and women appear: “Their trustworthiness, reliability, fairness, working and playing well with others, relative freedom from distracting impulses, and lower levels of prejudice, bigotry, and violence,” writes Konner, “make them biologically superior.”

HE SAYS; SHE CAN’T

Konner’s bona fides are unassailable: four decades of teaching and writing about medical anthropology. Add to these one more: being the male author of a book celebrating women. For, indeed, not everyone armed with similar knowledge could captain this narrative. As Konner acknowledges, “A woman writing a book about why women are superior to men can obviously be accused—however unfairly—of special pleading.”

MORE THAN TWELVE ANGRY MEN

At least one reviewer of the book seemed uneasy with Konner’s rejoicing. As Joanna Scutts of the Washington Post writes, referring to Konner’s previous fieldwork with the !Kung San, “Before we arrive at Konner’s female-focused utopia, we need to take a more modest lesson from the !Kung San and allow women to be part of the inner circle around the fire, free to speak out even—or especially—when it makes men uncomfortable.”

Scutts’s musings, though, are the mild stuff. The last line of the book jacket reads: “Provocative and richly informed, Women after All is bound to be controversial across the sexes.” As Konner acknowledges on his personal website, the first murmurings came about after a short adaptation of the book ran in the Wall Street Journal; hundreds of angry men responded in a couple of days. His wife, home alone during that period, double-locked the door. Konner’s editor at the Journal apologized for failing to instruct him not to read the comments. For his part, Konner is hiding in plain sight, saying, “Clearly, I’ve touched a nerve, and I’m happy about that.”

BIRDS DO IT

Konner freely turns the emotional volume up and down—up when expressing “bio-fantasies” (“we could theoretically see men fully replaced or literally kept in small numbers for sexual services”), down when contextualizing human and animal history of gender relations. 

He provides the charming lesson that not all animal marriages involve doting mothers and world-conquering fathers. From the cassowary (“a gorgeous flightless Australian bird” whose female “is man-sized” and leaves the chick rearing to her opposite-sex counterpart) to Jacanas (another species of bird with “hit-and-run moms”) to bonobos, the sexes often don’t play to type. In fact, Konner is not opposed to “bonobizing” humanity. And what would that look like? According to the author, “unshakable female coalitions . . . and males who are not unhappy but never get out of hand.”

HERSTORY

Our history also takes interesting shape in Konner’s hands. As he considers the hunting-gathering era—which constitutes the majority of human time—men and women’s relations were not far from being equal. There followed what Konner calls “the darker part of history, the thousand of years in which war and preparations for war predominated. . . . This . . . enabled men to form coalitions that fully excluded women for the first time and demoted them to a private space away from the public sphere.” It was not until two centuries ago, he says, that “women’s voices began to be heard again in a substantive way.” 

Konner is clearly genuine when he talks about a future that his grandson will inhabit, a “new world” that “will be better for him because women help run it.” 

If you count down from fifty, he promises, it will be here before you know it.

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