9.14.2010

science proves that men and women are from the same planet

The second story that confirms my beliefs touches on something more controversial and more challenging to many people. This story in The Guardian profiles scientific evidence showing that gender-based behavioural differences are not genetic, but the result of socialization.
There is almost nothing we do with our brains that is hard-wired. Every skill, attribute and personality trait is moulded by experience.

The "nature vs. nurture" debate - whether human behaviour is innate or the product of environment - is centuries old. Somewhere through the decades, the terms of the debate moved from "which" to "how much". It became widely acknowledged that human behaviour is influenced by both environment and genetics, but to what degree each affects us is still the subject of much debate.

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the dominant trend emphasized environment. In a period of expanding civil rights and social welfare, it was seen that improving social conditions would improve lives. One famous and landmark note in this realm was Dr. Kenneth Clark's famous doll study, which concluded that educational segregation negatively affected the psyches of African-American children. The study was used as court evidence in early school desegregation cases that were direct antecedents to wide-scale social change, such as Brown vs Board of Education.

During my university years and beyond, the nature-vs.-nurture pendulum began swinging towards the innate. It's no coincidence this occurred during a rise of conservatism and right-wing-radicalism. If everything about us is innate, what need is there to concern ourselves with social inequality, or indeed with social conditions at all? If behaviour is predetermined by DNA, people will be who they will be, regardless of environment. Look at this one man who pulled himself up from his bootstraps! If he can do it, everyone can. And if you can't do it, it's your own fault. If a whole bunch of children can't do it, don't blame poor nutrition, abuse at home or grossly inferior education. Just claim it's genetic and cut social spending.

[An aside: this cross-references nicely with my thoughts on Barbara Ehrenreich's most recent book, Bright-sided, which speaks to US society's extreme emphasis on individualism and revulsion for collective solutions.]

Through the 1990s and into this century, new evidence of the genetic basis for diseases has augmented the general trend towards viewing human behaviour as innate, and thus inevitable. And it is especially popular to use this lens to view gender differences and relations between men and women.

This is a very specific subset of the society's rightward march: the backlash against feminism. Feminism teaches that women and men are equally human and should be socially equal. In order to create an equal society, where each of us can achieve our full human potential, not only do women need full access to the boardroom, the academy and the halls of political power, but men need full access to the supermarket, the vacuum, the diapers and the laundry room.

But how much easier it is to say "we were born this way"!

After all, if men and women are from different planets, no one has to change, or even seek to understand each other's needs. Women must accept the double-duty of income-earning and child-raising. Men don't need to communicate or dirty their hands with household drudgery. Boys can be forgiven violence and disrespect. Girls should accept that inferior destiny is already written in their genes.

And this supposedly dates all the way back to the cave, as pseudo-scientists cherry-pick evolutionary "evidence" to support an anti-feminist viewpoint. A former friend - a woman - once told me that the glass ceiling is natural, because women are good at repetitive tasks and men are natural planners. Her evidence? In pre-industrial societies, women gathered while men hunted.

Well, there you have it. Who cares that in modern society, income-earning is not necessarily linked to physical size and strength. Ignore the facts that the advent of reliable contraception has radically altered the modern family structure, and that modern technology means we no longer work from dawn to dusk hauling water, baking bread and weaving cloth. Throw out centuries of human experience in which women have thrived as inventors, artists, astronauts, engineers and leaders of nations. Thousands of years ago, women gathered and men hunted. So stop complaining and do your job.

While thinking about this post, I read an excellent blog post related to this on The Oscillator, part of ScienceBlogs.
Even when not discussing human evolution and inborn intelligence, studies of animal sexuality continually are framed in terms of traditional gender roles (the coy, choosy female; the aggressive, studly male) while species or individuals that don't fit this narrative are ignored. Science news stories about duck rape become hugely popular because we apologize for rape as a "natural" event caused by the male evolutionary need to spread their seed widely. Biases and prejudices become natural, women's bodies are explained as in terms of men's desires, in our culture, in our media, and too often in our science.

There is political and social advantage to be gained in claiming that a certain power structure is "natural" therefore desirable. (The conflating of those - natural and desirable - is another assumption that must be questioned.) But the movement towards viewing gender differences as innate also dovetails with anti-science and anti-intellectualism: "I don't need some expert telling me what I already see with my own eyes!"

I've heard it dozens of times: parents claim that their boy children naturally gravitated towards playing with trucks, and the girls naturally reached for the dolls. They use this "evidence" - which is not evidence at all, but personal observation - as proof that boys and girls are inherently different. Here are some questions for those parents. Were both types of toys given freely and without comment to both children? Did the children grow up seeing other boys play with dolls and other girls play with trucks? What is it about a toy truck and the way a child interacts with it that you believe is inherently male?

And another important question. Has the male child ever seen an adult male caring for a baby? When I was a nanny, I overheard my boy and his friends playing grown-up. My little guy said, "OK, you be the mommy and go to the office, I'll be the daddy and make dinner. Bye honey, don't work too late!" His friend said, "Nuh-uh, daddies can go to work, too! Both mommies and daddies can go to work." And they argued about it.

I don't think it's possible to factor out the influence of environment. Gender socialization permeates every facet of our society. It is pervasive, omnipresent, insidious, inescapable. And you know what? It just may be responsible for everything we think we know about gender.
It is the mainstay of countless magazine and newspaper features. Differences between male and female abilities – from map reading to multi-tasking and from parking to expressing emotion – can be traced to variations in the hard-wiring of their brains at birth, it is claimed.

Men instinctively like the colour blue and are bad at coping with pain, we are told, while women cannot tell jokes but are innately superior at empathising with other people. Key evolutionary differences separate the intellects of men and women and it is all down to our ancient hunter-gatherer genes that program our brains.

The belief has become widespread, particularly in the wake of the publication of international bestsellers such as John Gray's Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus that stress the innate differences between the minds of men and women. But now a growing number of scientists are challenging the pseudo-science of "neurosexism", as they call it, and are raising concerns about its implications. These researchers argue that by telling parents that boys have poor chances of acquiring good verbal skills and girls have little prospect of developing mathematical prowess, serious and unjustified obstacles are being placed in the paths of children's education.

In fact, there are no major neurological differences between the sexes, says Cordelia Fine in her book Delusions of Gender, which will be published by Icon next month. There may be slight variations in the brains of women and men, added Fine, a researcher at Melbourne University, but the wiring is soft, not hard. "It is flexible, malleable and changeable," she said.

In short, our intellects are not prisoners of our genders or our genes and those who claim otherwise are merely coating old-fashioned stereotypes with a veneer of scientific credibility. It is a case backed by Lise Eliot, an associate professor based at the Chicago Medical School. "All the mounting evidence indicates these ideas about hard-wired differences between male and female brains are wrong," she told the Observer.

"Yes, there are basic behavioural differences between the sexes, but we should note that these differences increase with age because our children's intellectual biases are being exaggerated and intensified by our gendered culture. Children don't inherit intellectual differences. They learn them. They are a result of what we expect a boy or a girl to be."

Read more here.

21 comments:

johngoldfine said...

If a whole bunch of children can't do it, don't blame poor nutrition, abuse at home or grossly inferior education.

I can tell you from 40 years of sitting in faculty lounges listening to teachers that only rarely does one ever imagine that the problems they face in the classroom are systemic problems. Almost always individual deficits are blamed in preference.

Unless--as a fancier way of shitting on some kid, a teacher says, "Well, you know, the whole family is that way. Have you seen the junk in their their yard? Those cars they drive? The dirt behind their ears? What can you expect of people like that?"

That's as close as many of my colleagues can come to recognizing any other, more complex causation. Mostly, it's much more fun to rag on a kid for being stupid and bad and to congratulate ourselves for our neatly mowed front lawns and our kids' clean ears.

In some of those teachers' lounges I've felt like a vegetarian who has wandered into the butchers' convention.

L-girl said...

I can tell you from 40 years of sitting in faculty lounges listening to teachers that only rarely does one ever imagine that the problems they face in the classroom are systemic problems.

How very sad.

When my mom taught grade school in the 1970s, it was accepted conventional wisdom that the problems stemmed from home. Not that plenty of those teachers didn't ascribe home problems to "those people," but the children's probelms were not conceived of as their own fault.

Those were grade school kids, though. Hard to blame a 10 year old's problem on his own bad choices.

Amy said...

Although I do agree with you almost entirely, I will tell you our experience with the doll/truck issue. When Rebecca was a year old, we bought her two toys for her birthday: a doll and a truck. I can tell you that her father had had 50% of the parenting responsibilities: he changed her, fed her, rocked her, etc., almost as much as I did once I went back to work (when she was 4 months old). Yet she gravitated to the doll. We really tried NOT to influence her in any way. The only thing she ever used the truck for was as a bed for the doll.

Now I am not sure that was gender based at all, but I am not sure it was not. It could be that she was more drawn to the doll because babies and parents were what her whole life was about at that time, certainly not trucks. Now if we had had a boy and he had favored the truck, I would be more inclined to think it was an innate preference since he would not have seen us playing with or driving trucks. But alas, I had two daughters (NOT that I am complaining at all!), so I did not get the chance to test my hypothesis.

deang said...

My thoughts exactly! Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender has been on my reading list for a couple of weeks now.

You remind us of the emphasis on environmental/societal causes of personality traits in the 60s and 70s and then the switch to innate/genetic/"personal responsibility"-based ideas about personality development after, and you note that it dovetails perfectly with the right-wing dominance of society that has been the norm since about 1980.

Remember how, for much of the 70s, women and men dressed pretty much the same - jeans, t-shirts, and comfortable athletic shoes most of the time? Remember how at that time, words like "tomboy" seemed like throwback terms from the outdated, socially backward 1950s? Well, in the late 90s when the "That 70s Show" series came on, I started hearing people refer to the way the character Donna dressed as "like a tomboy," mostly said by young people. I would tell them no, that's the way most women and men dressed at the time. We didn't think of it as "male" or "masculine" but as casual, practical, and a sign of equality (when we thought about it at all). I don't know if I ever got through to anybody on that point, but the fact that I heard that comment several times is just another indication of the change in attitudes about gender appearance, and about "the way women are" and "the way men are," since the 70s. And I know women still wear jeans and casual shirts, but they're not exactly the same kind of jeans and casual shirts as men wear, the way they often were in the 70s. Another book on my reading list is Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism by Natasha Walker.

And the "In pre-industrial societies, women gathered while men hunted" is so uninformed. Yeah, men did mostly hunt, but how much and whether they did it exclusively varied by time and place, and gathering was rarely exclusively female. And if we're talking "pre-industrial" and not just "hunter/gatherer," agricultural gender roles varied even more, with women doing most of the planting in some societies, men in others.

Amy said...

Do you then believe that sexual orientation is also just learned behavior, not innate? Although I think sexuality exists along a spectrum, I do not think that it is merely a learned preference for most people. And to say that it is learned, not innate, would add ammunition to all those homophobes who argue that it is just a lifestyle "choice" that can be brainwashed in and thus brainwashed out.

L-girl said...

Amy, re your family's experience with dolls vs trucks, I would say two things. One, there is no part of our culture that is free of gender stereotyping, no matter how much you tried to remove that from your home, and two, I don't think we can generalize from our own experiences as to how human brains are wired. It's not a significant sample size.

Re sexual orientation, it's pretty clear that it's hard-wired. However, I also think the insistence on "born that way" is another social convention that can be a trap. I think sexual orientation is best seen on a continuum, such as the Kinsey Scale, not as an either/or choice. And for a lot of people, sexual orientation is fluid. I know so many people who, like me, found different orientations more or less relevant at different points in their lives. It wasn't so much a wholesale change as a change in emphasis. So while it does seem to be innate, it is also not set in stone.

L-girl said...

Dean, thanks for that, I love that observation about "tomboy" and "That 70s Show". I heard someone say the word tomboy recently and it sounded so bizarre!

Also, that's an excellent observation about hunter-gatherer societies. And I love how that "lesson" completely omits agricultural society - the bulk of human existence!

L-girl said...

I don't think we can generalize from our own experiences as to how human brains are wired.

...which I know you were not doing. I just meant that as a general response.

Amy said...

Laura, it sounds like we are in agreement on both of my posts. I was not generalizing from Rebecca's experience as a one year old. But that was her reaction, and I do not think it was necessarily innate or gender based, but mimicking both her parents, who were both caretakers, not truck drivers!

As my daughters grew older, I know that the outside world certainly influenced their choices of clothes, activities and interests. I think Harvey and I did our damnedest to raise them free of those stereotypes, but I am sure even we gave signals without realizing it.

And as I said in my original post, I do think sexuality is innate and something that occurs along a spectrum, though most people likely do not budge much from one end of the spectrum due to socialization.

L-girl said...

Yes Amy, I agree that we agree. :)

I also agree that the sexuality discussion can be a tricky thing to negotiate because of homophobia. When basketball player Sheryl Swopes came out as having a female partner, she said she didn't think she was always oriented that way, it was something that developed over her life. The bigots jumped all over that as proof that it was a "lifestyle choice" - when one has nothing to do with the other. I guess we can't expect bigots and fundamentalists to understand fluidity!

Amy said...

It's funny---I was just talking to a friend whose son is gay and who is now living with a man whose prior relationship was with a woman. We were discussing just this issue---the fluidity of sexuality. I guess that's why your post prompted me to think about the question in terms of nature v nurture. Apparently, the boyfriend told my friend that he is more attracted to the person, not their sexual identity. That seems so obvious and sensible in so many ways, but yet it is so hard for so many people to accept it. I think we are taught NOT to think that way, so to that extent the environment does keep us at one end of that spectrum whereas a freer society might have led the same person to make different kinds of choices if they were just following their desires at a particular time.

I don't know---all of this is such a mystery. The mind/body issues are just fascinating and in many ways unanswerable.

L-girl said...

There is very little room in our society to identify as bisexual, so most people end up identifying as either straight or gay depending on their partner. But lots of people who appear to be one of the other, based on tje gender of their partner, are in fact bisexual.

I would say about half of all gay people I know - which is a lot of people - have been involved in opposite-sex relationships at some point in their lives, and not in an experimental way. I also know tons of women who, like me, are bisexual and/but partnered with a man, because that's the person they love. It's quite common.

I agree that social expectations funnel us into an either/or choice, especially since monogamy is expected. I think many many more people are bisexual than identify as such.

Amy said...

I also have been thinking, in response to your post, about the relationship between sexuality and gender identity. If we are not inherently "female" or "male" in our behavior, that also explains why sexuality and gender identity are not always linked---that is, a person may be biologically female, attracted to men, but have an outward gender identity that appears more male than female. Or vice versa, of course.

Having a fair number of friends and colleagues who are gay, lesbian, transgender or some other hard-to-categorize identity, I have learned that there are far more choices than I could have imagined back in the olden days when I was growing up. I am hopeful that the next generation, those in the teens and 20s now, will be far more open-minded about all these things: gender roles, sexuality and gender identity.

impudent strumpet said...

women are good at repetitive tasks and men are natural planners

I do my planning while doing repetitive tasks, which may or may not be related to the thing being planned. Don't most people do this?

Children don't inherit intellectual differences. They learn them. They are a result of what we expect a boy or a girl to be.

When I was little, my mother taught high school math. I'd see her with textbooks and marking tests full of impenetrable-looking problems. I was good at math. I almost always got perfect on all my tests and worksheets - way better than the stoopid boys! Therefore, I concluded that girls are better than boys at math.

(My father's also good at math - he was a computer programmer at the time and knows hardcore financial stuff - but I didn't recognize his stuff as Doing Math, i.e. textbooks and worksheets.)

In about Grade 7, it became fashionable to emphasis the fact that girls can do math, which was rather insulting to me because I never thought that I couldn't. I felt vaguely objectified at being sent to all these math things specifically for girls, and even though I enjoyed math I didn't want to do any enrichment in that area because I didn't want to deal with the perky cheerleading from clueless teachers.

Re: the doll and the truck, I wonder if people gravitate towards the doll just because it's anthropomorphic. It represents a person, we're people, therefore it's more important than a truck.

I always wanted the blonde barbie dolls not because of any ideas about what's prettier, but because the blonde was the actual Barbie - the protagonist in the Barbie universe. Since I was clearly the protagonist in my universe (after all, I can't hear anyone else's interior monologues) I didn't want to be relegated to a supporting character in my make-believe. (I'm not claiming this to be in any way analogous to the doll experiment, just braindumping more anecdata)

impudent strumpet said...

Did blogger just eat my comment?

L-girl said...

(I'm not claiming this to be in any way analogous to the doll experiment, just braindumping more anecdata)

I like it.

The whole repetitive task/multitasking thing is bizarre. Do people really believe men don't multitask? Did they believe this before "multitask" was a word?

DavidHeap said...

Thanks Laura -- I find the Guardian piece particularly refreshing because so much of the MSM are way too ready to trumpet pseudo-results that "find proof" of sex and/or gender differences being innate, while ignoring less-sexy results (typically solid science) of the not-so-much-difference-as-you-might-have-thought variety.
I am out of my depth WRT most of this research, but one well publicized "innate difference" claim -- that women utter up to three times as many words per day as men -- has been debunked in detail by a skeptical linguist here and here. The fact that there is such a ready appetite for (largely unfounded) claims of dramatic innate difference, and so little media interest in the real science (that tends to find relatively minor differences) is the real problem.

L-girl said...

I find the Guardian piece particularly refreshing because so much of the MSM are way too ready to trumpet pseudo-results that "find proof" of sex and/or gender differences being innate, while ignoring less-sexy results (typically solid science) of the not-so-much-difference-as-you-might-have-thought variety.

Is that ever true. Thanks for those links, David.

On FB, a commenter is posting results of studies of brain waves - differences between adult men and women when thinking about or having sex. But why should we infer that those differences are innate?

It's been proven that one incident of trauma can permanently change the way one's brain reacts to fear and anxiety. Why then wouldn't decades of enculturation change the way one's brain perceives sex? Especially given that the perception of sex is one of the areas most based in culture and most divided by gender within our culture.

DavidHeap said...

A defintion of "feminism" I am rather partial to (from the textbook I use when teaching a second-year course on Language and Gender) reads: "As we understand that perspective, the basic capabilities, rights, and responsibilities of women and men are far less different than is commonly thought. At the same time, that perspective also suggests that the social treatment of women and men, and thus their experiences and their own and others' expectations for them, is far more different than is usually assumed." (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 2003:15).

Which doesn't preclude some innate differences (I honestly think we are a very long way from really sorting out which brain differences may be enculturated vs. e.g partly hormonal) but it does mean we should be very skeptical of innatist sex-difference claims. There is such an obvious and huge social bias in favour of "discovering" differences are "hard-wired", because it lets people off the hook for doing anything about cultural, economic and political discrimination.

L-girl said...

There is such an obvious and huge social bias in favour of "discovering" differences are "hard-wired", because it lets people off the hook for doing anything about cultural, economic and political discrimination.

As we like to say at Joy of Sox, "essackly".

johngoldfine said...

I always wanted the blonde barbie dolls not because of any ideas about what's prettier, but because the blonde was the actual Barbie - the protagonist in the Barbie universe.

A student once wrote this for me:

"I remember being a little kid and playing with Barbie. The grownups would walk by my door and say “oh how sweet” but they should have stopped a second and listened to the stuff we were doing. One thing my friends and I did was make up little skits for the dolls. Her and Ken would always get married, have a lot of sex, and then have a baby. Then Barbie and Ken would get a divorce because he was sleeping with the Barbie who had brown hair. There would be swearing in front of the baby and the lies...oh, the lies!. In the end, we always made sure that Barbie with brown hair and Ken would get caught. Barbie (the wife) would beat the living piss out of Barbie with brown hair. That's the way Barbie and Ken were. Hey, that’s the way we planned to be, and we weren’t so far wrong either. Kids know."