28 September 2005

Misguided notions of similarity in men and women.

I was listening to Joy Cardin on Wisconsin Public Radio this morning, and her guest, Janet Hyde, Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was attempting to disabuse listeners of the "Men are from Mars, women are from Venus" notion. There are many wonderful things about this, namely that it knocks a book that uses really silly, condescending analogies (men are Mr. Fixits and women are the home improvoment committee, in Gray's book.) But I think the the guest went too far in thinking the behavioral similarities of men and women out number the differences. This kind of think also goes to far if it suggests the differences are unimportant, and don't go beyond basic plumbing issues. Men and women are different, and these differences aren't a product of parental treatment. The common argument in radical feminism goes something like this, "based on whether a baby has a vagina or a penis, you dress them in blue or pink, and treat them totally differently." A useful analogy in thinking about this argument is that one about 'putting the cart before the horse.' Parents treat kids differently largely because experience tells them boys and girls are different.

Before I go any further I ought to state unequivocally I am a feminist. And a quote or two from Steven Pinker, evolutionary psychologist and linguist at MIT, ought to establish where I stand on such issues as gender differnces and equality. Here is Pinker (2002) on equality:
"There is, in fact, no incompatiblity between the principles of feminism and the possibility that men and women are not psychologically identical. To repeat: equality is not the empirical claim that all groups of humans are interchangeable; it is the moral principal that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properties of their group. In the case of gender, the barely defeated Equal Rights act put it succinctly: "Equality of Rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex." If we recognize this principle, no one has to spin myths about the indistinguishability of the sexes to justify equality. Nor does anyone need to invoke sex differences to justify discriminatory policies, or to hector women into doing what they don't want to do."

And to alleviate still more worries, here is Pinker (2002) on differences between the sexes as they currently stand.

"In anycase, what we do know about the sexes doesn't not call for any action that would penalize or constrain one sex or the other....No sex difference yet discovered applies to every last man compared to every last woman, so generalizations about sex will always be untrue of many individuals. And notions like "proper role" and "natural place" are scientifically meaningless and give no grounds for restricting freedom."

What is categorically the opposite of reality, is the notion found radical feminism that infants are born inherently "bi-sexual," and made blue wearing macho boys, or pink wearing submissive girls by a patriarchal, oppressive culture (Sommers 1994).

Throughout the animal kingdom evolution has fashioned differences in the biology of males and females. Sometimes these differences are dramatic as the details of sexual dimorphism illustrate. Male elephant seals are several times larger than females. Males are hugely aggressive, they fight (these are real fights by the way)for control of large groups of females called, sometimes controversially, harems (Alcock 2001). Both strategies, being small, female, and part of a harem or large, violent and male are both excellent evolutionary strategies for levering one's genes into future generations. Sexual dimorphism is in fact an excellent predictor of the type of mating system, and behavior of sexes. In primates, apes in particular, this seems to hold up rather well. Comparing Gorillas and Chimpanzees are an excellent example of differeing mating strategies and how they illustrate how genetically derived differences affect behavior. Gorillas, adopt a more Elephant Seal approach to mating systems. Male gorillas are large and tend to preside over several females whom they alone mate with. These silverbacks will fight other males for this control. In chimps mating politics are different. Several males live together in tribes with several females. There is some sexual dimorphism, but compared to gorillas it is miniscule. The dimorphism is indicitave of male on male violence but not with males of the same tribe but rather with neighboring males. (An interesting side bar. Alcock (2001)notes, all is not brotherly love in the land of tribe pals among the chimpanzees. Chimps have proportionally the largest testicles among apes. They are competeing with each other but it is sperm competition and it goes on inside the females.)
My point to all this discussing our fellow apes, is that no one claims that these differences in the behavior of males and females is a by-product of the cultures in which they live, but rather biologically derived, i.e. genetically prescribed differences. Sure cultural differences do exist between chimp tribes, and gorilla troops, living in different regions. But what doesn't change are the basic behavioral differences between males and females across these geographic territories. Why the double standard when human sex differences are discussed? No one but the most radical postmodern social scientist, or devoted creation "scientist" slip into paroxysms of rage at the evolutionary analyses of sex differences in non-human animals. Why do so many generally clear thinking people join in the paroxysms when humans are discussed?
What are we to do with human sexual dimorphism between males and females? How are we to asses the fact that human male testicle size is intermediate between gorillas and chimps (Alcock 2001)? That sexual dimorphism speaks to an evolutionary history of male on male violence and a generally more aggressive male attitude. That testicle size speaks to a history, not as as extreme as in chimps, of sperm competition among males. Even with this cursory look at our close relatives among the apes we can begin to see why differences in the ways young boys and girls and socialize. Boys and girls socialize in different ways and it happens almost immediately and with no necessary input from parents, or culture.
Here are some of the differences between boys and girls and men and women from Alcock (2001) and Pinker (2002):
-boys tend to engage in rough and tumble play boys play more at fighting, chasing and manipulating objects; girls play more at parenting, and trying on social roles.
-Men are statistically more likely to compete with each other for status, "using violence or occupational achievement: women are statistically more likely to compete via "derogration, and other forms of verbal aggression."
-"Women experience basic emotions more intensely, except perhaps anger. Women have more intimate social relationships, are more concerned about them, adn feel more empathy towards their friends, though not toward strangers...they maintain more eye contact, and smile and laugh far more often."
-Men seem to be more willing to take serious risks for status and attention.
-Men and women experience differ in their patterns of jealousy, mate preferences, and willingness to engage in casual sex.
These differences aren't likely cultural artifacts, but rooted in an evolved biology (a great number of these sex differences exist across culture, and many of the differences between male and female behavior are what you would predict if you were an evolutionary biologist and knew nothing but their physical differences are just two reasons why you might suspect these are real evolved differences biologically presescribed, or at least predisposed).
Men and women are certainly more similar to each other, than they are to other animals. We each experience the same emotions, care for young, compete with our peers for status, for mates, and resources. As Pinker (2002) points out that "a biologist would say thats its better to have the male adaptations to do deal with male problems, and female adaptations to deal with female problems." We are all human of course, and so it is unlikely that differences between the sexes are so extreme as to justify any kind of discremination in any of our professions. That isn't the same thing as saying that boys and girls and men and women should be forced to socialize in the same way if it isn't their preference.
Differences between male and female minds exist, and pretending that they are perfectly interchangeable is likely to lead to unpleasant consequences. We ignore the truth to our own detriment.

Literature Cited:
Alcock, John. 2001. The Triumph of Sociobiology. Oxford Univeristy Press, Oxford, England.
Hoff-Sommers, Christiana. 1994. Who Stole Feminism? Simon & Schuster, New York, New York.
Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: The modern Denial of Human Nature. Viking Press, New York, New York.


At 11:40 PM , Blogger mikey said...

i like your feminism definition and the rest.. anyway this isn't really part of the same debate, as your specifics are given as illustrations of your point not justifications, just an interesting skewing of the issue. i.e. your point is right regardless of your details or this- in the nurture assumption by judith rich harris she talks about boys and girls acting more boyish and girlish (respectively-duh) in mixed gender groups. they relax their role playing when separated by sex i guess.

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