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First Posted: 7/15/2013

It’s everywhere.

Men are praised for it, girls supposedly envy not having it, and every weapon in the world—from bullets to arrows to missiles—is shaped like it. It’s half responsible for your existence, and it has more slang names than Taylor Swift has had hit songs. You may have guessed it: it’s the organ of all organs… the male endowment, or, to use its proper name, the phallus.

Freudian psychoanalysis dominated the interpretation of culture for most of the last century, prompting readers to look for phallic symbols everywhere. But despite oversaturation, I think science and culture can teach us more about the societal importance of the male endowment.

Examples abound.

Men in the highlands of New Guinea have a decorative sheath called a “phallocarp.” This device can be as big as two feet long and four inches in diameter, making for one well-hung individual. Decorated with bright red or yellow colors, these devices are also covered with fur, leaves and other ornament.

The point, I assume, is to attract females by exaggerating the appearance of the man’s reproductive machinery. Other species, like the male bowerbird and peacock, use similar sexual signals to attract potential mates. Zoologists who study this kind of thing have documented “sexual selection,” as Darwin called it, in other parts of the animal kingdom as well.

Elsewhere in the world, in rural Northern Thailand, villagers practice a tradition of displaying carved, wooden phalluses throughout the village to repel deceased widow ghosts. When a healthy male dies in his sleep, a widow ghost is blamed. Allegedly, these deceased dames roam about Northern Thai villages, looking for men to take as their “husbands” and with whom they have sexual intercourse, kind of like that scene in “Ghostbusters” when Dan Aykroyd gets his pants unzipped by a ghos – not a bad deal for the guy (who is alive) because there’s no chance of getting an STD.

“Ranging from the crudest wooden shafts to carefully carved images complete with coconut shell testicles and fishnet public hair, they adorn virtually every house,” said anthropologist Mary Beth Mills.

Mills has observed these unusual lawn ornaments firsthand. In the U.S., erecting an erected male shaft on one’s front lawn might not fly because of city zoning laws, but in rural Northern Thailand villages, it’s all the rage.

Another aspect of male size has to do with evolution. Among the great apes, human males rank on top for size. According to Jared Diamond, author of “Why Sex is Fun,” the length of the erect penis is only about 1¼ inches in gorillas and 1½ inches in orangutans but 5 inches in humans, even though males of the two apes have much bigger bodies.

One explanation for this is that men’s penises evolved to match the length of the women’s vagina. If not for this natural limitation, men might be walking around with junk the size of those New Guinea phallocarps described earlier, which might make playing contact sports and jogging a lot more difficult!

At any rate, science and culture can help us understand a lot when it comes to the male endowment, its symbolic importance and its origins in both biology and folklore.