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.