Why is there no Birth Control Pill for men?This latest “Ask a ScienceBlogger” question will certainly engender a wide range of responses from the Scienceblogs.com team. Answers may address physiology, endocrinology, pharmacology, economics, and other areas of scientific thinking and practice. The answer I’d like to propose can be summed up in two closely linked words pilfered from the question itself:Men. Control.Myriad aspects of life can be understood by recognizing a single critical fact, and the layered, sometimes complex, deeply biological effects of that fact. Males, by definition, can’t have babies. All mammalian males contribute to the reproductive endeavor, but often this contribution consists of a single cell, one per offspring. True, that cell contains a haploid copy of the male’s DNA, the quality of which is critically important to the female. In contrast, nutrients for the fetus (through blood), nutrients for the infant (through lactation), protection from the elements, protection from predators, protection from infanticidal males, and transmission of biologically critical knowledge is provided by the female alone in the majority of mammal species. In these species the reproductive role of males is pre-copulation, and of course the deed itself. Precopulatory activity consists of direct competition with other males for sexual access to one or more females, or showy demonstration before the observing females of the qualities likely to be associated with that single cell, the sperm cell, that contains the male’s genes.Otherwise, the best a male can do to help the little ones grow and mature is to get out of Dodge and stay out of the way. Males that hang around after sex are a bother. They eat the food and they attract predators. Nobody wants them.Evolutionary Psychologists often take the circumstance of nearly zero male investment as the starting point for theorizing about human sexual strategies and social organization. “Males are selected to inseminate as many females as possible,” is a stock phrase.Well, it is a starting point, but only in the way that a nice red rock and some mineral oil is the starting point for an expensive tube of lipstick. The male as gladiator and sperm donor (and little else) might be the most common trope among mammals, but it is also true that a lot of mammalian species exhibit male parental care to varying degrees, and humans are this sort of mammal. More paternal care, longer periods of investment, and the greater reproductive value of each individual offspring means there will be more serious risk to males making bad investment choices. The females are at risk of reproductive failure as well (in fact, ultimately, females are usually at greater risk than males), but they have access to the most direct means of controlling reproduction. We would therefore expect human males to be the most neurotic … in an evolutionary sense … about making babies.Female mammals are in direct control of reproduction, but male mammals are never in direct control. Males are therefore forced to adhere to either Plan A … get out of Dodge … or Plan B. Control the females.When I say that female mammals are in control, I mean this in reference to every part of the process. In most mammal species, females choose with whom to have sex to a much greater degree than any male aardvark or high school student would like to admit. Females choose whether or not the egg will be inseminated. Females choose to allow the egg to be implanted. Females choose whether or not a fetus will grow or be aborted. Females choose how much to nurse their offspring. Here, I take liberties with the word “choose.” We could be talking about a physiological response to maternal condition that biases the likelihood of fertilization by an X- vs Y- toting sperm (in elk), or a conversation among friends that supports a decision to go out on a second date with a particular suitor (in humans).For every way in which females are in control, Plan B males (including humans) should be selected to exert indirect control in some corresponding way. In ‘monogamous’ mammal species, this may be in the form of total exclusion of all other reproductive males from a territory, and constant attendance to the female. In social mammals, a male’s indirect control of the reproductive process may be much more varied to meet the circumstances.Human males can rape. They can coerce. They can arrange for the marriage between their kin and the kin of an ally. Male judges can order the sterilization of individual females or a whole class of females, and male generals and privates can carry out a little genocide here, a little rape and murder there. Males can pass laws that limit a woman’s access to day-to-day birth control methods, to abortion, and to possession of property (resources). These are the ways that males can determine, at several different levels, the outcome of female reproductive activities.It’s like taking a cab in San Francisco. The driver is the metaphorical female, the hapless passenger from Boston is the metaphorical male. The cab driver has control of the actual driving … the gas, the brakes, the steering wheel, the gear shift. The passenger can get what he wants only using indirect means. You can scream at the cab driver or you can pay the cab driver off, but you can’t drive the cab.There are other ways that males can influence reproduction. In some species, males can use the strategy of being nice. Baboons within a given ‘troop’ seem to fluctuate between being tough and being nice, depending on age and rank of the male. The situation is roughly similar in humans, but less complex. Social rules vary wildly across human societies, but individual males simply have to learn as they grow up what the social rules are and either follow them or be very, very good a breaking them. Influential institutions and individuals, historical circumstance, and economics may cause changes in human societies over fairly short periods of time. The degree of male coercion vs. male niceness can shift for a lot of reasons. But a given male usually just has to watch the big boys and do what they do.The female birth control pill is an excellent way of controlling reproduction, but it has some costs, which are all borne by the female. It allows females to be sexually receptive with less risk for making bad decisions, which is beneficial to the strategy of both the male and female. But it interferes with only the female’s physiology and it has health risks only for the female. The male remains fecund. The male can still philander, but he cannot be a cuckold.A male birth control pill would be as odd and contrary to the broader biological and social conditions as females raping males or the cab driver going directly to your destination using the shortest possible route. Virtually unthinkable.But there is hope. I would say, in the absence of any information about the physiological or health related side effects, that a male birth control pill would be a good idea. But it is a good idea in the same way that not owning women as though they were cattle is a good idea. This idea that women should be socially, politically, and economically equivalent to men is a very, very new concept, and is only now being put into place, and in fact is very rare on this planet today.I’m reminded of two conversations, one I had with a computer engineer 20 years ago, and one I saw between John Stossel and Bella Abzug on a documentary from the late 1980s called “Men and Women: The Sex Difference.”In the first conversation, the computer engineer and his wife (an archaeologist) had a party to celebrate their recent purchase and successful installation of a printer and a scanner. Those were the old days, before printers and scanners were routinely provided free with your computer. The expensive devices (with the computer) had their own table in their own room, off the dining room. In the dining room were munchies and drinks, and guests would get their victuals and wander in groups of two or three into this special room to see a demonstration conducted by the proud parents.After I saw the demonstration, a thought occurred to me, which I (as usual) blurted out: “Hey, some day there will be a machine that scans and prints, and it can be a fax machine too, and it will be cheap enough that we’ll all have one.”Ooops. The host was deeply offended. He went on at length about all of the reasons this could never happen. There were fundamental, unbreakable laws of physics and engineering that would make such a machine impossible. I may as well have suggested a perpetual motion machine to Lord Kelvin himself.Today, when I hear about the impossibility of designing a male birth control pill, I recall this conversation.The second conversation, between the smart ass 20-20 reporter John Stossel and feminist New York congresswoman Bella Abzug, went like this:Stossell (smirking): “So, you are saying if women want to be firefighters but need physical assistance in their jobs, they should actually be given physical assistance of some kind?”Abzug (dead serious): “Right. If you need to invent an electric axe, invent an electric axe!”
Photograph is of Elle Macpherson.