Opinion: Men may be idiots, but that is a good thing says Matt Gaw

SUREFOOTED: Nik Wallenda walks over Niagara Falls on a tightrope in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

SUREFOOTED: Nik Wallenda walks over Niagara Falls on a tightrope in Niagara Falls, Ontario. - Credit: AP

Being idiotic has led to some of humanity’s most amazing discoveries, argues Matt Gaw.

I have written before about how, frequently these days, men seem to be wrongly lampooned as idiots and cynically caricatured as lumpen half-wits.

I was, of course, wrong. Well, sort of.

Because, according to a 20-year study of the Darwin Awards – an annual review of the most foolish ways people have met their maker – almost 90% of those featured were male.

Named after survival-of-the-fittest author Charles Darwin, the awards are intended to pay tribute to those people whose actions “ensure the long-term survival of the species, by selectively allowing one less idiot to survive”.

Past ‘winners’ have included a man stealing a ride home by hitching a shopping trolley to the back of a train, only to be dragged two miles to his death, and a terrorist who posted a letter bomb with insufficient postage stamps and who, on its return, unthinkingly opened it.

According to researchers writing in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal, of 318 independently verified and confirmed cases between 1995 and 2014, 282 (88.7%) were awarded to men – with just 36 awards going to women. (It should also be said that a further 14 cases involved a man and a woman exiting the gene pool together.)

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Researchers claim the gender difference is consistent with what they have called male idiot theory (MIT), the idea that many of the differences in risk-seeking behaviour, emergency department admissions and mortality may be explained by the observation that men are idiots and idiots do stupid things.

But, the research added, although MIT provides a parsimonious explanation of differences in idiotic behaviour and may underlie sex differences in other risk behaviours, “it is puzzling that males are willing to take such unnecessary risks – simply as a rite of passage, in pursuit of male social esteem, or solely in exchange for bragging rights.”

They add: “Presumably, idiotic behaviour confers some, as yet unidentified, selective advantage on those who do not become its casualties.”

So is there any hope for us men? Are the vast majority of us destined to end up in the emergency department (or worse) due to our inability to not be idiots?

Dr Dennis Lendrem, of the University of Newcastle, offers a crumb of solace in that the findings could be weighted in women’s favour – as females are far more likely to nominate men for a Darwin Award.

But there is also something else that needs to be said. Granted men do appear to have a sense of derring-do (often translated as idiocy) hardwired into their brains, but is that necessarily a bad thing? Of course, there will always be those whose attempts fall disastrously flat or who over-reach themselves due to alcohol’s bullet-proofing vest, but bravado has arguably been the root cause of some of the greatest moment’s of human history.

Explorations of the polar regions, attempts to scale the tallest peaks (George Mallory’s supply list included 60 tins of quail in foie gras and 48 bottles of champagne) and perhaps even Darwin himself, could all have been labelled idiots for disappearing for months on end, leaving wives and children at home, while they experienced the terrors and hostility of the unknown.

Alain Robert, who free-climbs the world’s tallest buildings, Philippe Petit, who crossed a tight-rope between the World Trade Towers, Felix Baumgartner, who plunged to earth from the edge of space, all have a whiff of madness to them – but idiots they are not.

And perhaps I should note here that derring-do is clearly not the sole preserve of the ‘idiot’ male. What about Maria Spelterini who crossed the Niagara gorge on a tightrope, wing-walker Ethel Dare, pilot and barnstormer Bessie Coleman and Annie Edson Taylor – who went over Niagara Falls in a barrel aged 63.

It seems that whatever a person’s sex, there is a strong argument that without the mavericks, innovators and trailblazers this world would be worse off – both in terms of interest but also in terms of creativity, problem solving and development.

Although having said that, when your co-worker attempts to ride an office chair down the stairs at the office party or your uncle tries to cram an entire box of Matchmakers into his mouth at the Christmas table, it is very likely they are not pushing back the barriers of philosophical or scientific enquiry.

I’m afraid in that case, they’re just being an idiot.