Taking Science Seriously: Conservative Dogma about Sex Roles Ignores Inconvenient Realities

Article excerpt

THE FEMINIST DENIAL of biological differences between the sexes can be downright hilarious. Who could forget Gloria Steinem, interviewed by ABC's John Stossel in 1995, deriding research on sex differences in the human brain as "anti-American crazy thinking"? In some quarters it's still a dogma that all sex differences in social roles, behavior, and attitudes are the result of the "social construction of gender."

In the face of this "biodenial," as the scholars Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge dub the phenomenon, conservatives are supposed to be the voice of common sense defending the basic realities of human nature. It's a necessary job: A rigid orthodoxy of androgyny is likely to have adverse consequences, both personal and political (such as aggressive, coercive efforts to eliminate disparities that might be rooted in inherent male-female differences). Unfortunately, the conservative critique careens to the opposite extreme, as if there were nothing between Gloria Steinem and June Cleaver.

A case in point is Taking Sex Differences

Seriously (Encounter Books), a new book by Stephen E. Rhoads that bears blurbs from such conservative luminaries as Francis Fukuyama and Danielle Crittenden.

Rhoads, who teaches public policy at the University of Virginia, marshals scientific data in support of supposedly traditional wisdom about the sexes. Unfortunately, he mixes genuinely interesting information and analysis with dubious generalizations, slim or anecdotal evidence, and sometimes downright junk science. And his conclusions can be distilled to such hoary precepts--e.g., girls who are too smart or too ambitious will have trouble landing a husband--that one feels like making a beeline for the nearest chapter of the National Organization for Women. With friends like these, human nature needs no enemies.

There is indeed a growing amount of research pointing to innate psychological differences between men and women. But there are several caveats. For one thing, scientific knowledge in such areas as brain neurochemistry and the link between hormones and behavior is still in its relatively early stages; much remains unknown, inconclusive, or poorly understood. Brain organization and hormonal makeup, for instance, may be influenced by human activities and environment.

Perhaps more important, nearly all sex differences are characterized by vast overlap: Generally, a trait more typical of one sex will occur in the other sex 35 percent to 45 percent of the time. Of the two brain-difference studies most widely publicized in the 1990s, one found the "male" pattern of brain activity in 40 percent of women; the other found the "female" pattern in about a third of men.

Rhoads occasionally acknowledges both the shortcomings of the research and the variability within each sex. But once he moves past the disclaimers, Taking Sex Differences Seriously drowns in generalizations. Men are competitive, dominance-seeking, aggressive, and ambitious; women are nurturers and peacemakers with a "taste for harmonious, egalitarian connections." (As the very sensible feminist Elizabeth Fox-Genovese wrote some years ago, no one who has been snubbed by a high school girls' clique could ever make such a claim with a straight face.) Men want careers and sex; women want marriage and babies.

Rhoads rarely clarifies the extent of these gender gaps. By and large, he is content with such broad statements as, "When asked how they would like to be described, men use words like dominant, assertive, independent. Women asked the same question say loving, generous, sensitive." All men? All women? In studies measuring these attitudes, women's ratings of the importance of such traits as compassion and sensitivity to others' needs may be all of 10 percent higher than men's.

When Rhoads does cite figures, they aren't exactly overwhelming. For instance, about half of male college fresh men and 68 percent of their female peers say that "helping others in difficulty" is "a very important or essential life objective. …