Obligatory disclaimers: Any implied hypothesis in this post is more speculative pondering than a scientific claim. That feels like a major cop-out, but there just isn’t enough non-anecdotal, non-folk knowledge for me to take a confident position on this. Further, keep in mind that we’re talking about groups, not individuals; it’s easy to find individuals well outside the group averages. For further clarification of how I feel about this from a thousand foot view, check out my piece on Darwinian feminism.
Just as there’s truth underlying what makes comedy funny, there’s some truth in stereotypes. Rather than a reflection of truth, stereotypes typically represent a cultural amplification of minor differences. As such, it’s difficult to disentangle what’s real from what’s cultural (yes, I just said culture isn’t real). In the realm of stereotypes, the association between men and meat is pretty strong. From the [debunked] “Man the Hunter” hypothesis to the staple imagery of Dad “manning” the grill, we have no shortage of references from which to draw. Maybe it’s the fire, maybe it’s the meat, but I’ve always embraced the opportunity to run the grill. I’ve also been curious about where cultural indoctrination gives way to instinct in this area. Recently, my attention was directed back to this from a strange direction.
As part of the ongoing paleo debate about the amount of animal products vs. plant products we should consume to achieve optimal health, I turned my attention to vitamin C. The topic is doubly interesting to me because, from a “why evolution is true” standpoint, the genes to synthesize vitamin C singlehandedly refute the notion of an “intelligent” design. Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is necessary for certain biological functions, and therefore, most animals have evolved to synthesize it. Humans have the gene coding for vitamin C synthesis, but it has been deactivated. The [almost certainly correct] hypothesis is that it was deactivated during a period of high dietary fruit consumption in distant primate evolution. Since vitamin C was ample in the diet, there was no positive selection pressure for the activated gene. Which brings us to scurvy…
Acute vitamin C deficiency in humans leads to scurvy. I noticed a strangely consistent risk-factor for scurvy while doing preliminary research on the condition. It seems that being a single man is itself a risk factor. It was listed in every result I saw from a basic Google search on the topic so I’m chalking this one up to common knowledge for medical professionals. Not only is being male and single a risk factor, but it’s also referred to colloquially, and in medical literature as “bachelor scurvy” (Connelly, 1982) or “widower scurvy” (Hirschmann, et al. 1999).
One of the hypotheses forwarded to explain why men are more prone to scurvy is that they don’t know how to cook. That seems strange considering that cooking destroys vitamin C. It’s found in high concentrations in a wide range of foods (raw fruit in particular) readily available to any grocery store culture. If a single guy can get to the store to buy hot dogs, he can buy an orange. Thus, I have to emphatically reject the “single guys can’t cook” hypothesis before even considering whether it’s factually accurate to say that “men can’t cook”.
Since vitamin C is ridiculously easy to consume, I’m inclined to view “bachelor scurvy” as a result of voluntary food selection choice. It seems the “single” part is because women opt for an increase in fruit/vegetable consumption rather than a Leave it to Beaver cliche of women in the kitchen. As it turns out, quasi-scientific studies confirm a certain level of disdain for vegetables by men…
Most Vegetarians Are Women
I think it’s safe to say that the go-t0 resource for wisdom related to evolutionary based diets is Vegetarian Times (VT). Thus, I’m happy to report that a study they commissioned in 1992 found that women are more than twice as likely to be vegetarians as men. At that time 68% of vegetarians were women compared to the remaining 32% of men. They went on to speculate that this difference is because women care about health and men don’t. There may be some truth to that, but since the assertion was unsupported, I remain highly skeptical. There are certainly other explanations available.
The premise of the VT article was that the president of the North American Vegetarian Society (a heterosexual female) couldn’t find a suitable vegetarian man to date (understandable, as I have recurring nightmares of this guy and his hat). Tapping into folk wisdom once again, I refer you to Pulp Fiction…
“…my girlfriend is a vegetarian, which pretty-much makes me a vegetarian.” – @ 0:53 below
Rather than assuming that only 32% of men are vegetarians, I wonder if it isn’t true that less than 32% of men would be vegetarians if they weren’t influenced by, or trying to impress, vegetarian women.
In a sidebar of the same VT article, a referenced study surveyed individuals in the 18-35 age bracket regarding their food cravings. The results showed that 33% of men craved meat or fish in the previous year, compared to only 9% of women. It seems that when thinking about taste and/or satisfaction, men display an almost fourfold increase in a desire for meat when compared to women. So aside from the ideas that men can’t cook and don’t care about health, what evolutionary explanations are available?
If the bulk of human evolution consisted of hunter-gatherer tribes in which men did most of the hunting (and therefore killing), and women did most of the gathering/foraging, could natural selection have favored mental traits that favored men with less reservations about killing animals? Could this have resulted in males more comfortable with processing, and ultimately in eating, meat? In environments in which hunting and eating animals afforded survival and reproductive advantages, it would make sense for males who psychologically objected to this practice to suffer increased selection pressure. In other words, quasi-moral vegetarian tendencies would be a direct disadvantage to men in hunting societies.
The meat craving study referenced in VT also found that the gap in cravings between men and women decreased from 24% to 16% in populations over the age of 65. While the 36-64 age group is missing from the article, we can make some assumptions about the 65+ group. Perhaps most importantly, this is beyond the reproductive age of nearly all women. Women’s cravings for meat more than double from the lower age bracket to the upper one. Thus, there could be a relevant factor in the consumption of plant matter in relation to fecundity (fertility) and/or diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding. The data in this study is insufficient to clarify this, but it’s an interesting question worthy of further study.
First, I’m interested in any research or insight that may be relevant to this question. I find it unlikely that there isn’t research that I simply missed. If you can point out other information that may shed more light on this, please add it in the comments below.
As I said in the beginning, I can’t commit to a solid hypothesis on this. There seems to be some instinctual inclination toward increased meat collection, preparation, and consumption in men. There’s certainly a significantly larger percentage of women who are vegetarians. I find current explanations of why men would shun consumption of vitamin C containing foods to be absolutely unconvincing. So… what’s the deal?
Connelly, T. J., Becker, A. and McDonald, J. W. (1982), Bachelor Scurvy. International Journal of Dermatology, 21: 209–210.
Hirschmann J.V., Raugi G.J. (1999), Adult Scurvy. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 41(6): 895-906.