What We Talk About When We Talk About Balls

Hey, what do we really know about balls, you guys? That they make semen and testosterone. That they are extremely vulnerable, but are bafflingly referred to as symbols of strength. That the expression "ballsy" is a good thing. That they are probably dipped in all manner of substances we might find surprising/hilarious. But today we learn something new about balls. And perhaps will speak of them differently from this day onward.

The times they are a' changin. The balls they are a' shrinkin'. Feminism has won. Smaller balls are connected to being a better dad. Yes. A new study reported on by Time says that:

Prior research has already suggested that dudes with higher testosterone levels are less into raising kids, but this study, which was published in the proceeding of the National Academy of the Sciences on Monday, is the first to find an independent correlation between testicle volume and parenting. As with other seed-bearing nuts, testicle-size determines how much juice is produced, and it seems there’s a kind of law of diminishing returns at work. The greater the semen output in each ejaculation, the smaller the parenting output later on. That matters—a lot.

Ladies looking for lifelong helpmates: Beware the giant load.

The basis for the study was 1) the obvious observation that some fathers are heavily involved in parenting and others are not, and 2) the desire to answer the question of whether the increase in the number of absent fathers in the second half of the 20th century has a biological basis. “Testicular volume is likely to be a more stable measure than testosterone,” says [one of the study's authors, James] Rilling.

To find out, the researchers measured the balls and brains of 70 Atlanta dads while those dads looked at pictures of their offspring. The smaller the balls, the greater the nurturing response in their brains, especially if the kids were expressing emotion of some kind. They backed up this proof of brain involvement with questions about actual involvement in the day-to-day care of these kids — doctor visits, nighttime awakenings. And they checked with the partners of these men.

It all added up: Smaller balls meant greater effort/investment as dads. It wasn't bigger balls that made these dudes do more things with their offspring, it was lesser balls. Smaller balls. Smaller testicular volume.

I can see this sort of info playing both ways in the hearts and balls of the population at large. The kind of alpha dude who measures masculinity entirely by its potency on the lothario meter would likely scratch his giant balls and snort at this news, content in the confirmation that family men are wusses, that real men don't do diapers, and their small balls prove it. But let's be honest — that guy doesn't read.

The point here is that as we slowly redefine being a "real man" as being as equal a partner in the domestic realm as the political/economic one, using terms like "having big balls" to mean being strong or manly makes even less sense. If you want a man who will dive into the trenches of family life with you, check the nuts (gently).

So, new rule: Do not go try to "have balls" and do not instruct others to "procure" some balls or "grow a pair" in order to "step up to the plate." Lose your balls to do the right thing. Do you hear me? Get rid of them. Balls-be-gone. Away, balls.

I mean, balls have been dangling in our faces long enough, at least since the 16th century, who's with me? This Slate Explainer explains it:

The 16th-century anatomist John Banister, for instance, argued that testicles are "the cause of strength and manhode." His younger contemporary, Helkiah Crooke, felt much the same: "Surely the power and virtue of the Testicles is very great & incredible, not onely to make the body fruitfull, but also in the alteration of the temperament, the habit, the proper substance of the body." (Habit here means bodily condition as well as disposition and character.)

The ancient Greeks, for their part, related courage to masculinity, and their most common word for courage was andreia, which comes from the noun anēr or man. The battlefield invocation to "be men" (aneres este) appears 10 times in The Iliad. A Classicist also assured the Explainer that both the Greeks and Romans made the direct connection between testicles and courage, though it's not easy to find instances of straight verbal abuse ("strap on a pair"). What we do have are Attic comedies in which large testicles are a sign of potency in the literal and figurative senses of the word and the absence of testicles signifies the opposite.

But we now know that the absence of the testicles (or the lessening) signifies the desired trait of the day: Present, engaged dudes who will equally share the raising of the children. Small balls are progressive balls.

Oh, but there is one other aspect of the study worth talking about: They aren't 100% sure what comes first, small balls or engaged parenting, but it's probably the small balls (how many times will I write small balls?)

Before women start weighing up potential life partners by what they feel when the men look straight ahead and cough, however, it should be noted that it’s not clear what comes first. Does simply having kids shrink the size of testicles? Unlikely, says Rilling. Non-fathers’ scrota were also put under the MRI, to check that parenting was not the sole determinant of size. “We don’t know the direction of the causality,” he admits. “It could be that as men become more involved in caregiving the testes shrink.” But he believes it’s more likely that guys with a little less in the sack are a little better with the crib.

And interesting enough, there was a brief period in history where smaller balls were pretty hot, notes the Explainer:

As it happens, there's also a contradictory strain in Classical art associating heroic virtue (including courage) with SMALL testicles, which implied self-control. Vase paintings and sculptures sometimes depict mythological male heroes with small testicles and comic figures with grotesquely exaggerated members.

There's something to that idea of self-control, if we think of self-control in terms of the "Life History Theory" the researchers cite, i.e., the theory that, as a species, our energy is either spent making young or raising them. (Says Time Mag: “Collectively, these data provide the most direct support to date that the biology of human males reflects a trade-off between mating and parenting effort,” claims the study.)

Trade wisely, young men. Trade wisely. But all this points to one thing we've all long suspected: Balls have had their moment in the sun, and just as we guessed, it was pretty hard for them and they needed a really high SPF. As they continue to reduce in size as part of the Great Shrink-Off for Equality, let's send them off with a fun party as we usher in the vagina in as the symbol of power du jour for the next couple hundred years. (Small balls.)

Image by Jim Cooke, source photo via Shutterstock