Manthropology: The Science of Why the Modern Male Is Not the Man He Used to Be

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9780312555436: Manthropology: The Science of Why the Modern Male Is Not the Man He Used to Be

Manthropology is the first of its kind. Spanning continents and centuries, it is an in-depth look into the history and science of manliness. From speed and strength, to beauty and sex appeal, to bravado and wit, it examines how man today compares to his masculine ancestors.

Peter McAllister set out to rebut the claim that man today is suffering from feminization and emasculation. He planned to use his skills as a paleoanthropologist and journalist to write a book demonstrating unequivocally that man today is a triumph---the result of a hard-fought evolutionary struggle toward greatness.

As you will see, he failed. In nearly every category of manliness, modern man turned out to be not just matched, but bested, by his ancestors. Stung, McAllister embarked on a new mission. If his book couldn’t be a testament to modern male achievement, he decided, it would be a record of his failures.

Manthropology, then, is a globe-spanning tour of the science of masculinity. It kicks off in Ice Age France, where a biomechanical analysis demonstrates that La Ferrassie 2, a Neanderthal woman discovered in the early 1900s, would cream 2004 World Arm Wrestling Federation champion Alexey Voyevoda in an arm wrestle. Then it moves on to medieval Serbia, showing how Slavic guslar poets (who were famously able to repeat a two thousand-line verse after just one hearing) would have destroyed Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent, in a battle rap. Finally, it takes the reader to the steaming jungles of modern equatorial Africa, where Aka Pygmy men are such super-dads, they even grow breasts to suckle their children. Now, that’s commitment.

For modern man, the results of these investigations aren’t always pretty. But in its look at the history of men, Manthropology is unfailingly smart, informative, surprising, and entertaining.

 

                      ***

HOW DOES MODERN MAN STACK UP?

Russian arm wrestling champion Alexey Voyevoda has a twenty-two-inch bicep and has curled more than two hundred and fifty pounds---with just one arm. But could he stand up in an arm wrestling match with an average Neanderthal male? Or, for that matter, a female? (p. 10)

                      ***

Today’s Ultimate Fighters compete in a sport where bouts routinely end with an unconscious loser splayed out on a blood-soaked canvas. But what would a match in the Octagon look like next to the Pankration bouts of the Ancient Greeks: a battleground or a playground? (p. 77)

                      ***

A modern army goes into battle with state-of-the-art technology and centuries of strategical insight. But for sheer determination, could they have bested Nero’s legions, who marched nearly two marathons a day for six days straight---each legionary carrying hundred-pound packs? (p. 99)

                      ***

There’s philological evidence that suggests Homer may not have written the Iliad; he may have rapped it. If 50 Cent had to face Homer in a rap battle, would he come out on top? (p. 160)

                      ***

Wilt Chamberlain is known for scoring on more than just the court. He claimed to have had as many as twenty thousand sexual encounters in his lifetime. Such conquest could only be matched by one of the world’s greatest conquerors: There is the evidence that approximately 32 million people are descended from Genghis Khan. (p. 248)

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About the Author:

PETER McALLISTER is an archeologist and science writer from the University of Western Australia, where he lectures in science communication. He insists that he doesn’t have it in for men, and that he is, in fact, happy being one himself. Besides his work as a scientist, Peter has been, by turns, a journalist, an ad salesman for a country music radio station, and a Chinese-speaking football commentator.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Manthropology Chapter 1 Brawn

If you really want to see the trouble modern men are in, just drop in on an action figure (definitely not action doll) convention such as, say, “JoeCon 25”—the 2007 gathering for collectors of Hasbro’s G.I. Joe. The pointers aren’t so much in the audience—those grinning Gen-Xers from across the country who bought the “American Hero” registration package and have now packed into the Atlanta Marriott atrium to await the forty-seven-floor parachute drop of three hundred eight-inch Cobra Red Ninja figurines. The trouble lies with Joe himself.

A series of scientific papers at the turn of the millennium unearthed a disturbing fact about G.I. Joe: he’s growing steadily, absurdly hypermuscular. The modern G.I. Joe “Sgt. Savage Extreme” figure, for example, is three times as muscular as his 1982 counterpart. The trend is particularly striking when “Sgt. Savage” is compared to real, living males. The average modern man has a biceps circumference of about eleven-and-a-half inches. If the 1982 “Sgt. Savage” had been scaled up to a living man’s height his biceps circumference would have more or less equaled this, at just over twelve-and-a-half inches. The biceps of “Sgt. Savage Extreme” in 1998, however, would have ballooned to almost forty inches if he had been likewise supersized. Not even steroid abusing bodybuilders ever get this big: the largest biceps in the modern world belong to bodybuilder Greg Valentino, who ’roided his up to a grotesque, but comparatively meager, twenty-eight inches. Even such not-so-hyper-masculine figurines as Luke Skywalker and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers now equal this. Mattel’s Ken—to quote one final, humiliating example—has not escaped unpumped either. Barbie’s inoffensive arm candy now sports a chest circumference attainable by just one in fifty real men.

G.I. Joe’s bulging biceps are a testament in ABS plastic to our accelerating obsession with male muscularity, and he’s not alone. Another scientific paper found that the nude male centerfolds of Playgirl magazine have gained an average 26.4 pounds of muscle over the past quarter-century, and lost 12 pounds of fat.1 A survey of American male university students found that most wanted to emulate these magazine man-muffins, stating a preference for 24 pounds more muscle and 7.5 pounds less body fat than they actually had.

All across the Western world men are packing into gyms, pumping iron, and swallowing ever greater quantities of legal and illegal supplements in the quest for buffed, bulked physiques. The number of weight-training gyms has ballooned and legal muscle-building supplements are now a $1.6 billion per year industry. Illegal steroid use is rife, too, with 70 percent of bodybuilders, and 12 percent of American high school boys, admitting to taking them. This has led to a predictably dramatic explosion in male musculature: one scientific paper found that Mr. America winners from the pre-steroid era averaged a fat-free muscle mass (total body weight minus fat, bones, and connective tissue) of 158 pounds, while bodybuilders in the post-steroid era average 176 pounds. (This doesn’t sound like much, but an extra eighteen pounds of pure muscle is a big increase.)2 Even this, however, doesn’t seem to satisfy us. A recent article in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry estimated that a million American men now suffer from Body Dysmorphic Disorder—a syndrome whose major symptom is the obsessive desire for a more muscular body.3 Even women are not immune: several surveys of American university women found that the majority of them secretly wished their boyfriends were more muscular.

Rock of Ages

The ground shook figuratively, as well as literally, when Iranian weightlifter, Hossein Rezazadeh, slammed down the 580-pound barbell after winning gold in the clean-and-jerk event at the 2004 Olympics. Not only was it an Olympic record, Rezazadeh also won, by popular acclaim, the title of “Strongest Man in the World.” A little history, however, shows the title to be too late—twenty-six hundred years too late, to be precise.

Nineteenth-century archaeological excavations on the Greek island of Thera uncovered a 1,058-pound boulder, dated to the sixth century BCE, bearing the inscription “Eumastas, the son of Critobulus, lifted me from the ground.” This is classified as a deadlift, in which event Rezazadeh has recorded a lift of 836 pounds (the world-record deadlift, 1,006.5 pounds, is held by powerlifter Andy Bolton). True, Eumastas probably didn’t lift the boulder up to groin height, as modern deadlifters do, but weightlifting historian, David Willoughby, points out that the difficult grip of a boulder, compared to the ease of a barbell, renders the feat probably unattainable by almost any modern weightlifter.4

Nor is that the only superior ancient weightlifting feat. Another sixth century BCE boulder, this time a 315-pound stone found at Olympia, bears an inscription to the effect that an athlete called Bybon lifted it overhead, one-handed, and threw it. No modern weightlifter has been able to even lift this weight overhead one-handed since the German strongman, Arthur Saxon, in the late nineteenth century—and not even Saxon managed to throw it.

But if we modern Hercules so easily outmuscle the men of fifty years ago, how might we fare against males of the truly distant past: those ancestral members of our genus Homo, such as Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis, who have populated the world at various times over the past 2 to 3 million years? As a paleoanthropologist, that was my burning interest, so I decided to test it. Since the focus of our current obsession with muscularity seems to be on the arms (one paper found that almost 75 percent of tenth and twelfth grade American schoolboys specifically desire bigger biceps5), I decided to compare upper arm strength between modern and ancient humans. In the interest of a fair fight, I decided to have them slug it out in the one modern sport in which arm muscles are undeniably king: world championship arm wrestling.

Competitive arm wrestling is a surprisingly popular sport these days. In the pantheon of modern strongman events—such as truck pulling, refrigerator carrying, and car wheelbarrowing—arm wrestling has been near the pinnacle ever since Sly Stallone’s 1987 movie Over the Top showed a down-at-heel trucker, Lincoln Hawk, arm-wrestle his way into his son’s heart and win the world championship along the way. The World Arm Wrestling Federation boasts 85 member countries and hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic participants in events such as “Arm Wars X” and the annual “Riverboat Rumble.” The big names, however, are the winners of the world championships—men such as Travis Bagent, premier left-arm wrestler in the world, and multiple world championship winner, John Brenzk (who actually wrestled in Stallone’s movie). To represent Homo masculinus modernus in this matchup, however, I’ve chosen one of the biggest, strongest men to ever bend the arm in professional combat: 2004 World Arm Wrestling Federation champion, Alexey Voyevoda. At 255 pounds with a 22-inch bicep (10 percent bigger again than those of Arnold Schwarzenegger at his peak), Voyevoda is the man to give Homo masculinus modernus his best shot at claiming the title in this interspecies grudge match. We’re going to need him, too, because for Voyevoda’s opponent I’ve chosen the toughest, most muscular species of ancient human to ever walk the earth.

The Neandertals.

The Neandertals were a type of human (or hominin, as all such member species of our genus Homo are called) who flourished in Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia between three hundred and fifty thousand and twenty thousand years ago. Homo neanderthalensis males and females were comparable to us in brain size (in fact, some Neandertal brains were much larger), but their bodies were far more muscular. Neandertal males, for example, though they averaged a mere 55 in height (around four inches smaller than modern male Homo sapiens) are thought to have carried 20 percent more muscle than modern men. One possible reason is their cold environment—a thermoregulatory principle known as Bergmann’s law predicts that people who live in arctic environments, such as modern Inuits, or Eskimos, will have greater mass and more spherical body shapes to reduce surface area and retain heat. Another possibility, however, is that hypermusculature was an adaptation to the violent lives Neandertals lived. Thirty percent of all male Neandertal skeletons found, for example, have traumatic head and neck injuries, a level reached only by rodeo riders among modern populations. It’s probable the Neandertal men received their injuries from the same source the riders did—close encounters with enraged bulls and beasts—since the archaeological evidence shows, incredibly, that they hunted prey as big as woolly rhinos by ambushing them up close with thrusting spears.

So muscular, in fact, were the Neandertals that I began to take pity on poor Alexey Voyevoda. Anxious to give this champion of Homo masculinus modernus a fighting chance, I stacked the deck slightly in his favor: I decided that instead of having Voyevoda square up to a hulking, rhino-hunting Neandertal male, I would send him into battle against a girl. A sweet, demure, coquettish Neandertal girl—the five foot, 176-pound beauty with the unfortunate name of La Ferrassie 2 (taken from the French cave site, La Ferrassie, where she was discovered with several other buried Neandertals in 1909).

Comparing their biceps strength was difficult, but not impossible. (It does involve a little calculation, unfortunately, so if that bores you just skip ahead four or five paragraphs.) The force a biceps muscle produces per square inch of cross-sectional area (called CSA and measured perpendicularly across the muscle) is known—it is 62 pounds. Fortunately, this doesn’t seem to vary between men and women, though obviously the total area of their muscle does. Measurements of Alexey Voyevoda’s total biceps CSA are, unfortunately, not available, but the average for a comparable group of modern males, elite bodybuilders, comes in at approximately 3.5 square inches. Multiplied by 62 pounds per square inch, that gives a hypothetical force of roughly 220 pounds for Voyevoda’s biceps. But how, then, to estimate the CSA of La Ferrassie 2’s biceps, given that all that survives of her arm is bone?

Surprisingly, it can be done thanks to a rule known as Wolff’s law. Wolff’s law, named after German military surgeon Julius Wolff, states that bone carries a record of the muscular load placed upon it because it grows larger over time in response to mechanical stress. In crude terms, the size of the muscle can therefore be estimated from the cortical area, or CA (a cross-sectional measure of thickness similar to muscle CSA), of the bone it was attached to. Since we have measures of bone CA for both La Ferrassie 2 and a representative group of average (non-bodybuilding) modern males, all I had to do was calculate the ratio between the two and multiply it by the average, non-bodybuilding male’s biceps CSA (1.8 inches square).

That, however, was where the first surprise hit me.

Despite the fact that modern males have 50 percent more upper body muscle than modern females, La Ferrassie 2 had bigger biceps than any average man alive today. The CA of her upper arm bone, or humerus, was 0.34 square inches, compared to our puny 0.3 square inches. Her biceps CSA was therefore probably around 2 inches square, around 16 percent larger than our 1.8 square inches. Multiplied by 62 pounds, that gave La Ferrassie 2 a hypothetical biceps force of around 124 pounds. Now, while this was enough to slam the average male pub challenger (with 112 pounds) to the table, it was a long way short of Voyevoda’s 220 pounds. I had not yet, however, corrected for the effect of training—one couldn’t be so unchivalrous, after all, as to let La Ferrassie 2 wrestle without a prolonged weight-training program to mirror Voyevoda’s. Several studies of elite female bodybuilders have shown that women’s muscles can grow, or hypertrophize, by approximately 31 percent in response to prolonged strength training. An increase of this size would bring La Ferrassie 2’s biceps CSA up to 2.6 inches square and her force output to around 162 pounds. Impressive as this is, it’s still just 75 percent of Voyevoda’s biceps output. At this point, it seemed, the Russian champion would have been counting his prize money and basking in the gratitude of vindicated modern males everywhere.

Except that La Ferrassie 2 had a nasty little surprise in store—two in fact. One was a trick of leverage and the other a quirk of Neandertal muscle anatomy. Put together they would have left Voyevoda regretting he’d ever been so stupid as to take her on.

It is widely acknowledged, among arm-wrestling champions, that a short forearm is a serious advantage. This is because the forearm is a third-class lever. Levers generally increase the amount of work that can be done as they grow longer, but third-class levers don’t—they decrease it. This is called the lever’s “mechanical disadvantage,” and its number rises as the lever lengthens. A short forearm, therefore, means a lower mechanical disadvantage. (The Neandertals had such short wrists because of another thermoregulatory principle, Allen’s law, which states that organisms living in cold environments will have dramatically shortened arms and legs, again to reduce heat loss.) My calculations show that Voyevoda’s forearm would probably have a mechanical disadvantage of 6.145, while La Ferrassie 2’s would be lower—around 5. If you divide each contestant’s absolute force by their mechanical disadvantage, it turns out that the amount of power La Ferrassie 2 delivered at her hand (the end of the forearm lever) would be just short of Voyevoda’s—roughly 33 pounds compared to 36.

By now the sweat beading the burly Russian’s forehead would no doubt be as much from relief at his close escape as from effort. But La Ferrassie 2 had a final, cruel anatomical trick to play. In Neandertal forearms, both male and female, the point where the biceps muscle was attached was located much further around on the radius bone than in modern humans, making Neandertals immensely strong in supination, or rotating the wrist counterclockwise, since full biceps contraction could be maintained through the whole movement. They likewise possessed much more highly developed muscles attaching to the other forearm bone, the ulna, giving them great strength, too, in clockwise rotation or pronation. These two features would have made La Ferrassie 2 an unbeatable dominatrix at two winning techniques in arm wrestling: the hook, where the wrist is supinated to get inside the opponent’s arm, and the top roll, where the wrist is pronated to get over the opponent’s wrists and bend his fingers back.

Once La Ferrassie 2 got her 10 percent bigger brain around those little numbers, Voyevoda’s pathetic 7 percent advantage would disappear in the snap of an upper-arm bone (fractured humeri are surprisingly common among arm wrestlers; see below). Of course, the beaten Russian could always cry foul, adding the title of “sorest loser” to the bulging trophy case of modern male failures. But the prospect of La Ferrassie 1—a fully grown male Neandertal bulging with 50 percent more upper body muscle than La Ferrassie 2—wading in to restore her honor, would probably dissuade him.

It’s all fun and games until someone loses an arm

Though popular, arm wrestling can be dangerous. One study from the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at the Keio...

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